Saturday, April 19, 2014
Last updated: 2 days ago

Germs and bacteria beautified in Invisible Portraits

Photo Carter Brundage / The Ubyssey

Photo Carter Brundage / The Ubyssey

Through high-tech images of microbial life, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum will gross you out and make you want to wash your hands.

Nevertheless, the museum’s current art exhibition, entitled Invisible Portraits, will entice you regardless of whether you are in Science or Arts. The exhibit displays different types of microbes alongside famous scientific theories, in the form of big metal sculptures, wood carvings and even jewellery. In this way, the show incorporates art into an inherently scientific topic — the result of which is an original presentation of biodiversity.

The creators of the works come from a scientific background. They include Kevin Carpenter, a former researcher in the field of microorganisms at the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC; Patrick Keeling, a professor of botany as well as the head of the microbial investigative team at the Biodiversity Research Centre; and Erick James, the team’s lab manager.

One of the notable works in the exhibition, meticulously forged by James, is a three-dimensional steel rod sculpture of Charles Darwin’s sketch of the “tree of life” in his notebook on the “transmutation” (what we now call evolution) of species, where he also scribbled down private ideas, questions and fragments of conversations related to his thinking on the topic. The element that renders the presentation of the tree sculpture more memorable, especially to audiences who may not be familiar with Darwin’s works, is the inclusion of Darwin’s succinct caption, “I think,” which was scribbled above the sketch of the tree.

However, to know exactly what Darwin meant by “I think” or to receive additional information or clarification on most of the works in the exhibit is not very viable, as there are few employees in the exhibit area and only a brief description on the plaque beside the works. As a result, some viewers may find themselves leaving the exhibit intrigued but unsatisfied, unable to fully understand what they have just viewed.

Still, the sculptures, wood carvings and jewellery — carved in the shape of different living microbes — are creative, and will evoke awe in those who would otherwise be impassive in a biodiversity-themed exhibition. The Beaty Museum’s mission to “make biodiversity better understood and appreciated,” through stimulating interaction between art and science with respect to biodiversity, has been accomplished — although this interaction is more evident in the sculptures, wood carvings and jewellery than in the high-tech images of microbes displayed on the wall.

Visitors to the Beaty Museum can explore the beauty of microbes, otherwise invisible to the naked eye, until Jan. 5, 2014. Admission is free for students, staff and faculty.