An art show set to open at the University of Wyoming Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center explores the UW Museum of Invertebrates through the eyes of volunteers and researchers who work there.
“Art in the Museum: Inspired by Life” is scheduled to run from March 27-April 27 at the Berry Center. An opening reception is scheduled for 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday and will include museum tours.
Elizabeth Wommack, staff curator and collections manager of vertebrates, said the idea for the exhibit arose out of a challenge she issued to a group of undergraduate volunteers to create art inspired by the museum’s collections.
The museum has nine undergraduate volunteers who do curatorial work and prepare specimens, in addition to other affiliated graduate students and researchers. The students are mostly zoology majors, but they often have minors or other majors from across the university. Wommack noticed that several students were passionate about art and covered their notes with sketches.
“I thought, is there any way I could bring their different interests together and inspire them to think about what they’re doing here, and the science they’re learning, in a different way?” she said.
She began opening the museum to volunteers one evening a month, when they could request anything from the collection that inspired them and use it to create art. After a few sessions, she approached the group with the idea of an exhibit.
The students agreed, and now a dozen or so undergraduates, graduate students and staff members are preparing work for the show. Their offerings range from detailed drawings of the museum’s birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians to pieces exploring the process of gathering specimens from the natural world and preparing them to join the collection.
“I wanted them to explore and think about their different passions and see what they could come up with,” Wommack said.
Sara Sirk, a museum intern who’s studying zoology, said her work attempts to capture the juxtaposition of life and death, as well as science and art, that she encounters at the museum.
“It’s drawing a lot of specimens that have been deceased for a good few years if not over 25 years, but then still trying to draw out the life that’s in them,” she said. “They’re on their second lives. They’re going to be preserved in the museum for a lot longer than I’m going to be alive.”
Francis Ngo, a zoology major with a minor in painting, said one of her favorite pieces is a large watercolor of a squirrel being prepared for storage.
“It’s representative of the things that a specimen has to go through before they become an end product in a museum drawer somewhere,” she said.
The Museum of Invertebrates houses a research collection of vertebrate fauna mainly from Wyoming, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.
“A lot of people call us the library of life,” Wommack said.
The museum accepts reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals, which it preserves either by saving the skeleton or by skinning and stuffing the animal. Reptiles and amphibians are preserved in jars of ethanol. Wommack said the ideal research collection contains multiple representatives of a species from different locations and time periods.
“It really records the variation (in a species),” she said.
The collections are open to researchers with specific questions. The museum is open to the public when tours are offered.
Ngo started volunteering at the museum more than two years ago because she was curious about the work that goes on there.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into preparing specimens and cataloging them, and then keeping up to date with the collection,” she said.
On a recent weekday morning, volunteer Reid Olson was in the final steps of preparing a bird skeleton for storage. Behind him in the small lab room where he worked, skinned birds hung from a line, waiting to have their flesh removed by a colony of dermestid beetles, which feed on animal material and are used to clean skeletons.
Using metal tweezers, Olson picked dead beetles and bits of remaining connective tissue from the skeleton he worked on, which had already been cleaned by the beetle colony. After a cleaning with hydrogen peroxide, the skeleton would be ready for storage.
Olson, who is studying zoology, said he decided to volunteer at the museum after touring it last year as part of an ornithology class. He especially enjoys working with birds, but is also planning to learn how to skin mammals.
“I figure the experience of skinning animals will help when I do birds,” he said.
He’s submitting a piece of art for the exhibit that he created in collaboration with a computer science student, featuring a digital image of the skull of a great horned owl.
Wommack said she hopes audiences will gain an appreciation for different ways that people interact with museums. She also wants to people to appreciate the love the volunteers have for their work.
“I don’t think somebody creates art unless they have a strong passion for something,” she said. “It’s amazing to see how their attachment and interest is being expressed in different ways.”
Sirk said she’s excited to share the museum and its mission with the public.
“I really hope we can see more new faces in the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center,” she said.