In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Art + Science Conversation with biologist Emily Meineke & Artists Robin Vuchnich & Leah Sobesy

Jennifer Berglund

Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host!

 

Jennifer Berglund

Today, I'm speaking with Emily Meineke, Leah Sobsey, and Robin Vuchnich - part of a team of artists and scientists who came together to create a new exhibition at the Harvard Museum of Natural History called "In Search of Thoreau's Flowers", which will open this May. It's a multimedia exhibition that uses the digitized collection of Henry David Thoreau's best plant specimens, which are preserved at the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University. They're doing it to reflect on environmental change at a turning point in our planet's history. Today, I wanted to explore with them how art and science can be used in conversation to explore difficult issues, such as climate change. Here they are.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Emily, Robin and Leah, welcome to the show.

 

Leah Sobsey

Thanks for having us.

 

Robin Vuchnich

Thanks for having us.

 

Emily Meineke

Thanks for having us.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Emily and Leah, this project really began with you two, and your mutual interest in collections. So tell me how it all began and how your early conversations evolved.

 

Emily Meineke

Leah and I know each other from a supper club that was informal and just a group of friends that got together every Friday and cooked food. So our initial gathering was around food, not specimens. It was during my PhD I think. We were friends and I sort of knew peripherally about Leah's work from just talking to her. I think at the time, she had just gone to the Grand Canyon to look at their specimens. And so Leah was actually interested in specimens in her artistic practice before I was in science. But then I really wanted to be able to study the damage that insects make on plants over long periods of time because that damage can do all kinds of things to natural ecosystems, and agro ecosystems. So insects can like sort of change the trajectory of plant communities and all kinds of other things. So I wanted to understand how those interactions were changing over time. But the problem is, there aren't a lot of data for that, because people haven't really been going out and measuring insects munching on plants over decades or centuries. They just don't do that very often. Maybe a couple of eccentric people have done that over the years. But it's not consistent or widespread enough to really tell us how the damage insects were making is changing in response to climate change or anything else. So I started looking at herbarium specimens, which are pressed plant specimens that are featured in the exhibit, and at the time I was working at the Harvard University Herbaria as a postdoc, and the NSF, the National Science Foundation, was heavily investing in digitizing those specimens. So taking them from being physical objects to being images and, you know, databased information online. One of the refrains I kept hearing in large meetings and things about the digitization was now the specimens are, sort of, they've gone from being institutional assets to online, available to everyone for anything. And people kept sort of bringing up artists, like, oh, artists can use these now. And I was like, how are they gonna know they're there, because they've been part of science for so long, and they've been sort of locked away, and only scientists have really had access to them. And then I thought about Leah. I was like, well, Leah has actually made an effort to go see these specimens in the Grand Canyon, and bases a lot of what she does off of the specimens. And so she and I just kept talking about maybe doing a project with specimens, digitized specimens in particular. And Leah at the time, sort of pinged me and was like, how is that Thoreau collection? And how is that Emily Dickinson collection at Harvard? And just sort of thought about visiting. And I think that's where everything started.

 

Leah Sobsey

I remember I had an exhibition in Chapel Hill that had a lot of those pressed plant specimens that I was working with, that you mentioned at the Grand Canyon, and I think that's where we really connected over that from your perspective of the research and mine from kind of an artistic perspective. So I was awarded an artist residency at the Grand Canyon. The National Park system has this amazing artist in residence program and I was there for a month as just a solo artist working right on the South Rim in this 100 year old apartment that just looked at right out over the Grand Canyon, it was amazing. And I had been working with bird collections, bird skins, at the North County Museum of Science in Raleigh. And when I got to the Grand Canyon, I thought like, as a photographer, I didn't really have anything to add to the conversation of landscape photography, I felt like that had been done. And so I instead turned my attention to the collections at the museum park, and they have this incredible collection that really is not open to the public. I mean, I was able to access it, because I asked to see it. And then once I did, I was just granted access just to be able to go in and photograph these different specimens and collections. So I was really drawn to the plant specimens, the pressed plant specimens. I mean, for me just personally being at the Grand Canyon, trying to take in the monumental scale, and is impossible and sort of to really understand what happens there. So for me, that was a way to go in and really see what was happening there. And that was through their collection. So I did a project with their pressed plant specimens. And that turned into other residencies, but working in different museum collections. So that's where kind of my history of working with collections comes from. And really, it was by chance in the beginning, when a bird flew into my window, and I photographed it and then realized, like, oh, there's this whole world that lives in the science museum that maybe I can access. And a friend of mine was an ornithologist there. And it was totally by chance, but it has evolved into just part of my practice working with these different museum collections and different institutions.

 

Jennifer Berglund

When you and Emily started talking about potentially doing a project, how did the conversation really start? When did you really start seriously thinking about this?

 

Leah Sobsey

Well, I remember we met for coffee to have a conversation about it. And that's when Emily brought up two other potential collaborators, which was Marsha Gordon and Robin. And I think Emily, you and Marsha had been maybe talking about collaborating on something. And so it just sort of naturally all fell into place. I think we all have these sort of similar interests, but from very different perspectives. And I think that's what was one of the really interesting things is like pulling on all of our independent strengths and research and then trying to have this conversation that we were all interested in this idea of Thoreau and climate change and art and science and what we could learn from it. So I think that's where that conversation kind of was born. And then we started having what felt like weekly meetings. I think in the beginning, just hashing out ideas and kind of dreaming up ideas. And as we got further along, it became more and more specific about how we would use the specimens from Emily's and Chuck's research and from Robin's specialty. And Marsha has been doing a lot of the writing component for the project. So it was really easy. I think we just all sort of fell into place and had a conversation that just grew. And now I mean, I think that was probably at least five years ago.

 

Emily Meineke

Marsha Gordon, who's not here today, but as our other partner in this, her energy, really pushed this forward in a lot of ways because she's a really hard worker. And when she gets excited about something, she sort of throws herself into it. And she did a lot of the initial organization and fueling of the project energy-wise. I think she hosted a lot of those early meetings. And, and I think we started really meeting when everyone saw the Thoreau collection online that was digitized by Chuck Davis as the director of the Harvard University herbaria and others. I think that was the thing that really fueled us.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So Robin, you define yourself as a new media designer. What do you mean by that? How are you using new media in this exhibition?

 

Robin Vuchnich

I work at the intersection of experience design, digital art, and the new media landscape. And that affords myself and other artists the ability to leverage emerging technology and digital materials in the development of art and that makes for a powerful set of tools and modalities for communicating information or ideas or visuals or even abstract concepts. With new media, we're talking about leveraging digital technology for making art. Experience design is an approach to designing an experience or a product or really anything, a system, using methodologies that place a person at the center of the design process. It's really about understanding who you're designing something for and what their needs might be and how you can facilitate those and that can manifest itself again in the form of a product or an exhibit design or some kind of art experience or immersive experience, especially in the context of something like an exhibit design. In the context of this exhibit, it affords me the ability to present that entire collection of 648 digitized plant specimens in one view and offer data visualizations that create shared understanding about the story of those plants and how many artifacts in that collection contain plants that are now in decline because of manmade climate change. The takeaway is that it's almost half of them that are declining to the point of local extinction or are already lost. So for me, conceptually, I thought of this digital artifacts, that herbarium, it was kind of like the digital ghosts of these plant species that are declining. Which for me isn't a fact that just makes them handy for generating digital art, but it's a part of their story as living things. And it's a story that ends devastatingly with so many of them only surviving as digital artifacts. And so I'm hoping that a visitor of the exhibit takes away the question of what it means that we're tumbling towards a time when those artifacts can't be known in the real and tangible world when perhaps we can only experience them in the context of a museum or on a screen or something like that. Marsha Gordon, who's a film studies professor at NC State, hold me in and we are neighbors. And we both worked at NC State at the time, and she knew that I had UX experience and experience with animation. And I think initially, the idea was that I might create some kind of video art for this or, you know, some kind of interactive component. And then it kind of evolved after Emily shared the data and really kind of educated us about what that meant, and its relationship to the Herbarium collection. For me, it became really clear that we had an amazing opportunity to make that data visual to make it knowable to anybody like you know, a scientist or a elementary school student, because of the striking story that it told about that collection. For me, it became, how can I take that collection and make it visual, make that data understandable, and also iinto an engaging and interesting experience using technology. That's how I came in and where I found my spot in all of this.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Leah, let's go back in time, a little bit. You use 19th century photographic processes to tell stories about the past in order to understand the present. What do you mean by that? And how does it apply to this exhibition? How are you using it?

 

Leah Sobsey

In this particular exhibition, I'm using the cyanotype process, which is a process that was invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, who was a scientist, but was utilized by Anna Atkins, who was a botanist. And it really transformed the history of photography, but also in the science world. So prior to that, an artist would come and do illustrations of plant material, right. And that would be how we would understand the material. She took the actual plants and made what's called photograms. So she laid them directly on top of the sensitized paper, and then exposes it to UV light. And that creates this really beautiful Prussian blue color. So part of my work conceptually is thinking about, you know, these source materials, these, in this case Thoreau's collection, of pressed plants, and trying to think about, you know, the history of those, as well as the history of photography and trying to sort of create this marriage, that, you know, we're looking at these as a way to understand the past and make sense of what's happening currently. So for me, that's always the interest. I mean, in all of my work, I'm, I'm referencing history, I'm utilizing materials that are historic. And it is about, a certain degree about what can we learn from these? And how can we, in this case, make a change? I mean, that for me is working in this particular collection, and really seeing the data and figuring out, you know, this sense of climate change just feels like an emergency. And so for me, it really feels imperative to be working with, you know, this collection and talking about climate change. I think, for me more and more as an artist, it's like, what, what can I do? What is my role as an artist? It feels really desperate in many ways. Sort of side note to that. I think, maybe we'll get into this later. But, you know, when we're thinking about the data, you know, that comes to us even what we're looking at to try to make sense of right. It's like these Excel spread sheets, which I just tend to glaze over, I can't connect with that. And so I sort of shut down.

 

Jennifer Berglund

I think most people can't cope with that.

 

Leah Sobsey

Not where the joy is, right? I don't know, maybe there are people, Emily, that love, love spreadsheets, like science perspective, or that it's necessary, right? But then how can we transform that into something that we feel connected to. And so that, for me, is always also at the root, it's like, you know, creating this conversation from material that has felt really kind of distant, both, you know, what Emily talked about, like, these specimens are locked away, you know, in the Herbaria, and you can't, you can't really have access to them, they're fragile. And so by digitizing them, you know, suddenly, there's this open access, which I think is exciting, it just opens up so much conversation. But to get back to your original question, which was, you know, working with these artifacts as a way to kind of look at something in a contemporary framework based on, you know, looking at the past. And that's, you know, at the root of my work, and I'm sort of treating them when I think about photography, you know, I'm turning all of these specimens into black and white negatives to print from. And I'm often kind of turning them into almost X ray images and thinking about just visually how that represents just this kind of information that is embedded in there that scientists like Emily can go back in and learn from even now, right, these, like historical artifacts, that they're still living information that's really important and critical in there.

 

Jennifer Berglund

You mentioned a woman named Anna Atkins when you're talking about this earlier. And I want to go back to that, because she's also another interesting dimension to all of this. She was arguably, and correct me if I'm wrong, the first female photographer. And she did work with cyanotypes back when Thoreau was wandering through his woods, what's the significance of that?

 

Leah Sobsey

Yeah, well, I mean, I think some of it, you know, for us, in our disciplines of artists and scientists, as we collaborated in thinking about being women in a field that has historically, you know, not been great at representing women. And so that I think, was at the forefront of our conversation in the early days. And I have felt like Anna Atkins is always sort of hovering in the background of my practice. In 1842, Sir John Herschel, who was an astronomer, landed upon this process, you know, the cyanotype process, and they, I think, had a shared family friend. And so she was a botanist. And that was kind of her access into this. And so they partnered together to create this really important book in the history of photography on British algae. So she took those specimens of algae, and again, laid them directly onto that sensitized paper. So what you're getting is the real representation of that algae rather than an illustration of it. And so, you know, it's what we recognize as blueprints, like in architectural drawings, that kind of color would be represented. So for me, I've always thought about as we were talking about this project and thinking about this kind of conversation of art and science, that that felt important to include her in some way. And that, you know, again, this sort of homage to her and thinking about the past, and these kind of overlapping of time, like you referenced of Anna Atkins and Thoreau, that they were kind of charting similar but different territories in terms of the work that they were doing. So I sort of always knew that I wanted to work in this capacity with this collection in cyanotype. And, you know, I work a lot with different plant based photographic processes. So using the actual plants as the emulsion, and as the light sensitive material, but clearly in this there was, you know, these are really precious as specimens, you know, as historical documents. So the cyanotype felt like it would make sense conceptually, to working with this collection.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Emily, you mentioned you got your PhD in entomology and really prefer spending your time outdoors as opposed to just looking at spreadsheets, although you do like spreadsheets, you can't not like spreadsheets because you're a scientist. How did you end up in an herbarium studying insect damage? And how is that work relevant to this exhibition?

 

Emily Meineke

Well, just for the record, I spent most of my day yesterday cursing a spreadsheet, so it's a real love hate relationship.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So I guess nobody likes them. I don't know.

 

Emily Meineke

Well, I love them when they tell me a coherent story. And then when they don't, and they malfunction, it's a whole other thing. But anyway, I think it's wonderful that what Leah and Robin are doing are taking that process of being a scientist and being able to see the story emerge from numbers on a spreadsheet, that they're changing that into something that's more beautiful and more accessible to other people. And I think that's the biggest joy of being a scientist is like, having your own spreadsheet on your own computer that no one else can see. And you're the first person to have the expertise and the data to see a story emerge. So that's my love of spreadsheets. I do prefer to spend my time outside. I didn't learn until I was probably 30 that I had ADHD, which made a lot of sense, because I just, I performed well in school for the most part, but I had a really hard time sitting still. Even as we do this interview, I have a really hard time sitting still. And that's after being properly medicated. And so I do prefer to spend a lot of time just being active and moving my body. And I did that during my PhD, I studied urban ecology, and I was studying urban trees, so the trees that line city streets. I really love, even though I like to be outside, I really like cities. And I also really love urban trees, which I think bring nature into urban spaces and sort of act as a foundational species for lots of insects and birds and things that can make use of them in addition to making cities more livable for people. I love street trees, and I studied those as a PhD student. And I was studying the insect herbivores that live on them, these tiny little insects called scale insects, which are sort of closely related to aphids. And I was studying how the process of warming in cities affected them. And so for a really long time, people have noticed that if you have the same tree species inside the center of a city and then you plant it in a rural area on the outskirts of the city, the tree inside the city will have this buildup of these small, soft bodied pests like aphids or mites or scale insects that the trees outside the city just don't experience. And for a long time, people thought, well, maybe it has something to do with the fact that their predators just aren't present in the center of the city and so these insects were able to build up on plants and then have these negative effects on plants and their growth, which of course we don't want because we want the plants that are in our cities to be vigorous and healthy. And I tested the hypothesis that it had something to do with the heat that we emit in cities when radiation from the sun hits the hard surfaces that we install, like, you know, building surfaces and asphalt and cement. And it creates these warming patterns across cities that mimic climate change in some ways. And so I was studying how urban heat across the city of Raleigh affected these scale insects, but also whether that might be a good model for what's going to happen with climate change. And I got really frustrated because that's where my story always ended, like, oh, maybe these scale insects are a good model for climate change. But I couldn't really test that. I couldn't really go back in time. And there was this brilliant postdoc in our lab named Elsa Youngsteadt who figured out how to do that. And so she had this type of scale insect that its body is made of this waxy substance that stays on herbarium specimen stems. So she could actually go back and count the scale insects on red maple plants from long ago. And she did find that the data were collecting from the city suggesting that warmer areas of the city had more scale insects that in warmer years in the past, there were also more scale insects. And so that's where my interest in herbarium specimens started. And I started wondering like, well, what other things about interactions between plants and insects can we get from these press plants? Can we get information about insects that chew plants which includes a lot of charismatic species like moths and butterflies in their young stages as caterpillars. And plants just are essentially a cafeteria for insects. The vast majority of life on Earth is insects that eat plants. There's some quote about if there's a God, they have an inordinate fondness for beetles, because beetles are so hyper diverse and most of those beetles are beetles that eat plants. So in any case, I wanted to use herbarium specimens as this time travel tool, and I happen to end up at the Harvard University Herbaria as a postdoc. And as a scientist, what I really like about the ethos at Harvard, and where it intersects with mine, is that I just sort of use whatever tools are out there to answer the question that I have. So I let the question guide my scientific practice. So that's how I ended up in an herbarium and then I just really ended up loving it. I remember I was quantifying insect chewing damage on leaves made by beetles and caterpillars one Saturday and I ran across this specimen. I mean, this is tragic. But it was a specimen of Baptisia tinctoria, Wild Indigo. So basically it was documented on the specimen in the Herbarium that someone had collected it because this family had collected these plants and thought they were asparagus, wild asparagus, and had eaten them. And were all in the hospital. And it was collected and someone in the family had already died. And it just was so interesting to me and exciting that I could be learning things about insects and plants, but also sort of time traveling as a person back into times when people regularly foraged for their food. Even though it was a really sad story, I just kept being interested in the human and natural stories that you could extract from them.

 

Jennifer Berglund

I love that. And it's really interesting thinking about using digital specimens like those in the Herbarium for things other than science and thinking about the types of stories you can tell if you're thinking beyond the data. And Robin, as a new media designer, experience designer, as someone who uses these digital collections, what kinds of stories excite you most?

 

Robin Vuchnich

Once Emily conveyed that data story, and you know, I read some of the papers and kind of wrapped my head around what we were actually saying about the plants. In this case, unlike so many other cases, there really was this just really striking story. It's like, it's not just like some slice of the pie that we're talking about. It's like half the pie, right? And I'm like, hey, that is something that anyone can understand. And we don't always have opportunities to make data around climate change is super duper visible like that, you know, that opportunity doesn't present itself all the time.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And we're talking like 600 specimens, right?

 

Robin Vuchnich

Of 648, over half of those contain plants that are affected by climate change to the point of extinction, in many cases, and being able to help tell stories like that is exciting to me. And you know, not possible without collaborating with science, obviously, and the digital humanities.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And I love how you've done it, too. I've been working on this exhibit with you all, and I've been following how you are using spreadsheets, and using real science data to create a real visual representation of loss, which is amazing, I think conceptually, it's a really brilliant way to show that to the public to tell that story.

 

Robin Vuchnich

I think art is a powerful tool for describing anything that's otherwise indescribable. You know, the concept of loss and extinction, those are heavy concepts that resonate with people deeply, but are mired in cognitive dissonance and all those things that keep us from really engaging with the reality of it. And so I think art is so important to defining and describing and helping us get in touch with those things. You know, as we've been saying, the concept of loss is easy to dismiss when you're seeing it on a spreadsheet, as opposed to experiencing it in the way that art can help you experience it and make it memorable and resonant.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Emotionally, which is something that science tries not to do. Along those lines, I want to ask all of you, what role do you think beauty plays in telling the stories of science, or can play?

 

Emily Meineke

I think that science in general can feel very inaccessible to people. And I think we're seeing this in our media landscape and our political landscape now that people have a really hard time empathizing with scientists. And I think it's because the world of science has seemed like a world that is walled off. The effects of climate change are really hard to engage with. I mean, I know even when I pull up like a New York Times article on a Sunday morning, and there's climate change in the title, as someone who studies climate change, I don't read it, because I can't bring that into my personal life. And so I can totally understand how someone who works on something completely different from nine to five is also not really going to want to read. Each of us can do little things to help but we don't actually see the effects of our individual efforts. And that's very frustrating as a person. I think beauty is a vehicle for drawing people in to something that's otherwise, I think, very controversial these days.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Just to add to that, too, the fact that this exhibit involves Thoreau who was just this incredible writer who brought such beauty into his words. Not only do you have these beautiful specimens, these beautiful artworks, but we're including these incredibly beautiful quotes from Thoreau about nature and his love of nature and his love of experiencing nature, and that's another way to bring beauty in a way that science can't.

 

Emily Meineke

Yes, absolutely. And, you know, I think we sort of try to pretend that there's not emotion and beauty involved in science on a day to day basis in terms of just like your scientific practice and what I do all day. And what I do all day is look at spreadsheets. And it does seem boring from the outside. But there's actually a lot of beauty in that, especially if a story sort of pops out to me. And I have access to that beauty. Just like Thoreau had access to his daily life and what he found beautiful in nature. It's just that the communication of that beauty is really hard. And Thoreau was able to do it through his writing. And I'm hopefully able to do it through collaborations with Robin and Leah who have those skills that I don't have. So yeah, I mean, Thoreau's writing is so beautiful, and really takes you not only back to the nature that he saw, but through his unique lens. And so that is definitely a huge asset to the exhibit in terms of how to draw people in with beauty.

 

Leah Sobsey

Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, I think about this word beauty in the art world that's kind of shunned. It's like, it's not a serious, right, like, things shouldn't just be beautiful, they need to have more meaning than just a beautiful object. And I think, for me, that's where this feels like it's this lovely intersection where we can create beauty from these really difficult discussions. And I'm someone that has always made beautiful objects, right. That's just innately part of my making. And I think in this context, it works. Right? Like, we're we're trying to tackle these difficult conversations, you don't want to do that by creating things that are going to turn people off. I think what Emily said, the articles that we read, how things are politicized, that turns people away from this idea of engaging with climate change and climate science. And one of the ways that I know how to do that is by creating beautiful objects, right, and inviting people into the conversation to have an experience that you're seeing this installation kind of come to life, you're seeing the data come to life, which is what Robin is doing, you're seeing in my role, all 648 specimens, you're seeing which ones are thriving, are doing okay, and which ones are in severe decline. And so I think, you know, this idea of beauty is a fraught one, again, in the context of the art world. I think in the regular world, we want to be surrounded by beauty, right? Like, that's why we go on walks in the woods. That's why we go to movies. That's why we invite art into our lives, whether it's like a visual art or through music, right, it just something that's going to make us feel good. And I think it can be both. This experience that we're creating can both make you feel good. It can also, hopefully, from my perspective, ask someone what their role is. So when they leave, like, what are they going to do to potentially make a minor change if it's just having a conversation with someone as change or actually putting something into action. And that feels really critical to me in all of this is like, we're not just showing this decline and this loss. But I think, you know, the other part of this is this educational component that what are we asking people to walk away with? What do we want them to not just have an experience, but to maybe actually try to make a little change in the world.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Going back to this idea of beauty, too. I think it's important for listeners to understand that Thoreau's herbarium sheets today, not all of them are beautiful. And in fact, they're not very beautiful at all. They're dried plant specimens. They're not colorful. They're on these yellowed sheets.

 

Leah Sobsey

I think from an archival perspective, they're a mess. You know, there are stains all over the paper that he was using to press the flowers on. Some of them have leftover newsprint somehow that transferred into the specimens,

 

Jennifer Berglund

Which is interesting, historically, but not beautiful.

 

Leah Sobsey

I mean, I think they're beautiful. Yeah, I mean, they're incredibly beautiful. But I think, you know, they're sort of haphazardly laid down on the paper in the same way that I'm using some of his journal notes and a few of my pieces, in terms of when he was recording when things were flowering, and I can hardly read it. It's so frenetic and wild in the text.

 

Jennifer Berglund

I think you all, Robin and Leah, especially as artists and making these yellowed specimens sort of appealing to anyone's eye, right. I think you've done an incredible job of doing that. I mean, you know, Leah, obviously with adding color with the cyanotype and doing it in a way that has its own story, finding creative ways to connect his journal pages to your work. And then Robin, creating sort of a kaleidoscope of images to show abundance and at the same time loss and telling a single story through that collective beauty.

 

Leah Sobsey

I also think there's something interesting about this idea of science equals bad news that typically, it's like this way of presenting the work to the world, which is often bad news. It's not often that it's equated with the good news, I think, or at least that's what gets mainstream publicized. And so I think, again, going back to this idea of creating a conversation that invites people in rather than pushes people away, and also that we connect through this idea of stories. We each know each other better after telling our stories to each other. And I think part of that is having people connect to these plants through storytelling and asking them to care about them and asking them to have some empathy towards these plants. You know, I'm thinking about these four big prints that I'm doing for the show. And we're referring to them as portraits. And from my perspective, thinking about making a portrait of a plant instead of a person, and how do I go about doing that? What do I need to include in order to, you know, have people connect to them in a way that they'll leave caring about these specimens and these plants?

 

Jennifer Berglund

I'm glad you brought up storytelling. It's one of my favorite things to talk about in this podcast, and just in general. And so I'm curious Robin and Leah, as artists, I know that you're telling collectively a single story, but you're telling a story two separate ways. So what story are you trying to tell, Robin, that is different from Leah story, and how do they come together?

 

Robin Vuchnich

The immersive component of it beyond the data includes, like you said, animations kind of Kaleidoscope animations of the plants. And it was important to me, first of all, that not feel like some kind of Uber realistic VR walk in the woods. I think that Thoreau would have hated something like that. He would want people to go into the woods to experience that. So the story I'm telling there, I think is more about featuring the plants that are in decline in that part of it, and the ones that are most heavily in decline. So in a sense, I'm trying to kind of give them a digital afterlife, sort of put a spotlight on them, so you can appreciate the beauty of them. Many of them are really gorgeous. And then also contend with the reality that they're disappearing from view. That's definitely a story. You know, here's this picture, here's this full picture, wall to wall of this entire collection that presents so much variety, different forms of life, different species, and it's been cut in half. Right, that story, I definitely want to make sure that that comes across. I love the phrase that Leah just used about people not wanting to engage with bad news. And certainly there's some bad news in that story, too. But I guess maybe the good news is that we can continue to engage with the facts and with reality, and that we all have agency and can act individually and collectively to mitigate the effects of climate change. That's the good news. I think that's part of the story that I hope is transmitted.

 

Emily Meineke

I think we hope that people will walk away inspired to engage with nature and art because I think that's part of the good news of the exhibit. And I just I have been so destroyed and inspired by this poet that I really love named Ilya Kaminsky, and I hope I'm not butchering his name. But he wrote this book called Dancing in Odessa. It's a poetry book. And it's about Odessa in the Ukraine, which is a port city that he grew up in. And he was deaf when he was a child and didn't get hearing aids for a long time. And of course, lived through the famine in the Ukraine. And now that there is this awful war, and this port city of Odessa is sure to get invaded by the Russians. Just following him on Twitter, following the things that he's been writing and the communications that he's having with people who are on the ground in Odessa, a lot of what he describes is about people making art in a time of war. And even though right now, I think I can speak for Leah and Robin and me saying that we're very privileged in that climate change has not displaced us. We're not climate refugees. I think that there can be a sense of guilt associated with just this disaster happening that sort of mirrors a war that's displacing people because of the increased violence of hurricanes and sea level rise, and I've sort of sometimes feel really small and really guilty. And then I connect with the thought of people in Odessa making art. And it's like, no, when people are in pain, it's a very natural thing to make art. So for me, it's a very cathartic process to see this exhibit come to life because I do engage with data that show me these really difficult stories about climate change. And so part of the good news of this exhibit is being able to share my day to day experience of looking at these data with people in a way that is positive and connective.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Describe the importance of inspiring empathy when communicating stories about climate change. And how do you have to do that in this exhibition? This is a question for all of you.

 

Robin Vuchnich

Well, I think it goes back to one, that idea of beauty, right, this invitation to participate in something, have this experience in this one moment where you're kind of invited in, right? I mean, Robin is creating this piece that you feel yourself kind of drawn into it are part of it by this projection. And I think also just scale when we're talking about 648 different specimens that she's using and that I'm using to create this wallpaper that there is, you know, there's something that happens when you're immersed in something right, this immersive experience. And I think, again, it goes back to that idea of if you care about something, then, you know, you're going to walk away wanting to know more or protect or whatever that means to each person. And so this idea of empathy, of caring about these little specimens, these plants that we are isolating in this exhibit, I think, hopefully just asks people to connect with them in a deeper way. And just stop for a moment. I think, you know, the other thing about it is that it's so location specific, you know, I mean, we think about this collection of Thoreau's and the importance of it, right, it's this like little time machine or time capsule of information from Walden and that being so close to the museum. So hopefully, having people connect with it to see like these plants that lived in Thoreau's time, which was not that long ago, half of them are not available anymore, they're not there anymore. And so there's a real connection that is being made, I think, from using this particular collection of Thoreau's. And I, you know, I think for me, going back to that idea of for these four portraits that I'm creating of these plants, I'm using the ones that are in most decline, right, the ones that are really suffering, and I think there is that idea of like, you see both beauty and suffering at the same time, you know, they go hand in hand in this particular case. So these images, I'm going to be, in my mind, kind of revering these. You know, I'm using gold leaf as part of the artwork, and there's a reverence, I think, for how I'm thinking about these plants and this collection. And my hope is that that gets translated, that other people feel connected in that same way.

 

Robin Vuchnich

Just to piggyback on that, I think that if we can build empathy for the natural world, then we can help people understand that they are not separate from it, that its loss is our loss, its plight is our plight, it's fate is ours. So for me, when I think about empathy in the context of this exhibit and climate change, it's about helping people make that connection of their not being separate from the natural world where these things are occurring.

 

Leah Sobsey

It feels exciting to think about, you know, as an artist opening up the conversation, right, that it's not just for people that only would go to an art museum or an art gallery, that it's a much bigger, broader conversation. And just the importance of that, right, that it's not this kind of siloed experience of only science in the science museum or only art in the art museum, that we can start having these conversations that are, you know, like anything in life that are dependent on each other. And I think it's great that we're able to do that in this context.

 

Emily Meineke

Empathy is really the underlying thing of this exhibit and has so many different roles that I hope it will play. From what Leah was just saying about the plants themselves being living beings, and however people take that in will be interesting. But the hope that that will inspire empathy and maybe inspire us to live a little more gently. I hope that for myself, honestly. You know, I've used a gas powered car for many years and I've eaten meat for many years, and I've done a lot of things that in some cases could have been mitigated, and in some cases probably couldn't have been in the case of needing a car. But I feel complicit in some ways. And it's very hard, in a lot of ways, to engage with climate change, because of that feeling of guilt. And I think that, again, the role of beauty is to allow that empathy to operate. I think we hope the beauty of the exhibit will allow people sort of a railroad into the empathy for the plants themselves, and frankly, what we've done and continue to do to the natural world, and that that will fuel us all being able to live a little more gently. And maybe I'm being sort of pollyanna-ish about it. And maybe people will forget three days after they leave the exhibit what they experienced. But I think my hope is that people will walk away from the exhibit with that feeling, at least initially.

 

Jennifer Berglund

What do you hope to inspire in our visitors with this exhibit?

 

Robin Vuchnich

I hope that visitors are inspired to go take a walk in the woods and observe what's around them and wonder about its fragility and impermanence and their role in the arc of the story of the plants that are around them. And I also hope that they leave feeling like they've intellectually profited to the degree that they can have conversations with friends and family about what they saw, which was, in a way, beauty and also visual evidence of climate change. And hopefully, it's presented in a way that's clear enough, so they can talk about it and describe it with confidence, I think that would be wonderful.

 

Leah Sobsey

I guess part of it, for me is inviting people to slow down for a minute. We're constantly on the go bombarded with information overload. And I think part of what we're trying to do is to invite people in to just slow down and have this experience. I mean, in some ways, I think about the palette that I'm using, and that Robin is using this kind of blue, as a meditation. And I think we, you know, we referred to that in some iteration of the title at one point. And that it is this kind of both meditation on the landscape, but also what can be meditative in the process of taking information in. And, you know, along with what Robin said that hopefully, people want to engage in conversation when they leave or during. I think about what I said before this, like, I feel compelled in this way that it just feels like an emergency all of a sudden. That what seemed to be so far out, this idea of climate change is now present, we see it on the daily and it feels a little terrifying. And so if I can figure out how to engage with it in a way and have people engage with it in a way to maybe think about how they deal with it. I think about it from the perspective of having young kids. And this idea of what I can do as an artist is just to create a conversation and that there's a legacy that we're leaving collectively, and that we have this very small window, what feels like a very small window where we can make some change to actually make a difference. And I think about the legacy that I'm leaving for them and it feels desperate. I feel desperate about it, really. If I think about it too much. It makes me emotional. I just, it really does feel like a desperation. It's like, you know, I'm an artist, what do I do? What this is how I this is how I have that conversation and this is how I know how to make a change aside from little things that I can do on the daily but it's like how do I have a bigger conversation that might make a small difference.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Emily, Robin and Leah, thank you so much for being here, this has been a wonderful conversation.

 

Emily, Robin, Leah

Thank you, Jennie. Thank you for having us.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was edited by Emma Knudsen and produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University and to Emily Meineke, Leah Sobsey and Robin Vuchnich for their wisdom and expertise. Thank you so much for listening. If you like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pod Bean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See in a couple of weeks!