Reflections on the Natural History Museum: The Art of Iridescence and Nature’s Jewels

By Franziska Schenk and Julie Harvey.

Published by The Arts Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The paper reviews a new interdisciplinary project at London’s Natural History Museum that aims to make the Museum’s collections available to arts and humanities academic researchers. It focuses on the potential use of the collection for visual artists. The work and personal experiences of the painter Franziska Schenk is explored in detail. Working closely with Museum staff, the artist accessed and successfully capitalised on the wide range of collections at her disposal. Her work provides a telling example of the artistic potential that the Natural History Museum collections have to offer as source material for interested researchers.

As a case study, the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded art & science project ‘Sea Change: Converting Nature’s Fluctuating Colours to the Painter’s Palette’ (2007) drew on the Museum’s actual iridescent specimens and on their historic representations housed in the extensive art collection. Ms Schenk and Professor Andrew Parker, the Museum’s expert on iridescence, collaborated to recreate in painting the metallic-like iridescent colours of Nature. Until now, artists have tried in vain to capture these oscillating hues. However, recent advances in colour technology have led to the manufacture of novel nano-particles, which offer artists the wonderful (yet challenging) opportunity to mimetically depict iridescence. Based both on practice-based and scholarly research, the findings presented not only illuminate the subject of iridescence from a range of` diverse angles, but they also provide a vivid account of the crucial impact the Museum, its resources and staff, had and continue to have on the development of ideas and the generation of artistic work.

Keywords: Iridescence, Painting, Art & Science, Natural History Museum, Access to Museum Collections, Knowledge Transfer

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 3, Issue 5, pp.133-144. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 3.608MB).

Franziska Schenk

Lecturer in Visual Arts, Bournville Centre for Visual Arts, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, Birmingham City University, Birmingham, UK

Franziska Schenk is a practicing artist and lecturer in Visual Arts at Birmingham City University. Her work explores the relationship between fine art painting and the natural sciences. The natural world provides the focus for an exploration of fundamental natural principles, such as evolution, fossilization, predation and camouflage and their relevance to contemporary fine art thought and practice. A number of recent art & science collaborations with the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, the Natural History Museum, London and the University of Birmingham have focused on the role of iridescence in Nature, Science and Art. The aim of the ongoing research is to adapt and adopt latest nature-inspired iridescent pigment technology in the context of painting, thereby introducing change into a traditionally static medium.

Julie Harvey

Co-ordinator, New Perspectives, Natural History Museum, London, UK

Julie Harvey is the Co-ordinator for the New Perspectives project at the Natural History Museum London. She is leading this interdisciplinary initiative to explore the potential of using the NHM scientific, library, archives and art collections as a resource for Arts and Humanities research. A trained biologist, Julie has a research interest in the history of entomology and has published on the life and work of German artist-naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).


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