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Museum Tries Branching Out

By Alexander B. Cohn and Betsy L. Mead, Crimson Staff Writerss

Visitors to Harvard’s Museum of Natural History looking for dinosaurs this month will come across a surprising new exhibition. In place of the usual bones, the museum is showing photographs of leaves in black and white.

The museum is not trying to bombard visitors with the unexpected, said Executive Director Elisabeth A. Werby ’72, but attempting to bridge the gap between art and science in the hopes of attracting new crowds to the institution.

“We wanted to do something a little edgier, to bring in a new audience who don’t expect this kind of photography,” she said about the exhibition entitled “Looking at Leaves,” which features photographs by celebrated New York photographer Amanda Means. It is the third in the Museum’s “Looking at Nature” series, following “Looking at Landscapes” and “Looking at Animals.”

“Our goal is to use photography to get people to look at nature in ways they hadn’t before,” Werby added. “It’s about a whole new way of understanding the natural world. We saw Amanda Means’s photographs and knew that was what we wanted for the exhibition; it was a perfect match.”

When asked about her work, Means said that she wished to express through her pictures the beauty of leaves, which are rarely seen as artistic objects in themselves.

“I’m really interested in the crossover of science and art, and this is just perfect...I wasn’t intending to instruct in the beginning, I think,” she said. “I just loved the formal aspects of the shapes, the veins, the lines. For years, I didn’t even find out the real names.”

“For the first time with this show, the botanists worked with me to figure out the names of all the plants,” Means added.

The exhibition features leaves of differing types and conditions, some with several tears and cracks. Means said that this allows viewers to see a leaf’s life cycle at different points, showing science in an artistic fashion. “It’s really important to me that I’m not just using perfect leaves,” she said. “I’m interested in getting people to think about the life of a leaf from the beginning all the way through leaf bud, new tiny newborn leaf, then at the end of the summer they fall off and decay into the soil.”

The Cornell-educated photographer said her work was influenced by artists like Jackson Pollack, and in the case of this exhibition, by one quotation from Pollack in particular: “My concern is with the rhythms of nature...I work inside out, like nature.”

The exhibition will run at the Harvard Museum of Natural History through Feb. 8, 2009.

—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at abcohn@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Betsy L. Mead can be reached at emead@fas.harvard.edu.

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