Philly’s Academy of Natural Sciences brings art into science’s fold

The traditional way for a science museum to explore water and the environment is generally not by filling a gallery with a cacophony of peeper frogs or by erecting a 35-foot-high tower of funnel, cistern, and sousaphone bells next to a couple of loping dinosaurs at the front of its building.

Nor do museums in Philadelphia tend to send visitors right back out to the street on meandering walks that take them down to the banks of the Schuylkill, where they can hear the bubbling sounds of the river bottom made audible.

But that’s exactly the kind of thing that’s happening at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University on Logan Square, part of a conscious effort to revivify the public experience of the institution, founded in 1812 and in its current building since 1876.

All of these projects — from the “art adventure” walk to the peepers in the gallery to the tower of sousaphone bells out front — are elements of “Watershed Moment,” the academy’s first foray into commissioned artwork and the center of its celebration of “Water Year 2022.”

Most of “Watershed Moment” — conceived largely by New Paradise Labs, a Philadelphia-based experimental performance group — debuts on Aug. 3 and runs through Oct. 30. (The gallery-based sound installation, The River Feeds Back, featuring the peepers and other unexpected voices and sounds from the Schuylkill watershed, opened June 1 and also runs through Oct. 30.)

In a major departure from past practice, the academy is deliberately using art to think about exhibitions and programming, said Scott Cooper, academy chief executive and president. The arts are a “tool” that the academy can put to use in service of its mission and to impress upon visitors the urgency posed by environmental issues.

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“We’re a science institution, we get that, and we look to our curators, our collection managers, our environmental scientists for all of their knowledge and inspiration,” Cooper said, in a recent interview. “But how do you get your mission across, which is an environmental mission to understand the natural world and inspire everyone to care for it? How do you use other tools, other modalities? How do you reach into the humanities? How do you reach into the arts? How do you use all of those tools to move people from just looking at what’s in front of them in an exhibition to thinking about what’s in store for them in the future?”

One thing you do is you bring in Marina McDougall, a veteran arts curator who honed her skills at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and the Wattis Institute at the California College of the Arts. Less than a year ago, the academy charged her with coming up with ways “to move people” into “thinking about what’s in store for them in the future.”

McDougall was not brought in specifically to emphasize the arts in programming. Rather she has been asked to revitalize programming by seeking outside partnerships that speak to the academy’s mission and identity as a science museum.

“Those external partners can sometimes take the form of artists ‚” she said in an interview.“Or they can take the form of partnerships with other scientists. Artists, like scientists, are great noticers. They raise questions though, in different ways. They have different forms of communication. They allow a kind of access to some of the questions around what science is researching.”

The watershed project, she said, really has its roots in a conversation between artists and the academy’s environmental scientists.

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In a meeting, Lin Perez, director of the Delaware River Watershed initiative for the Academy’s Patrick Center, mentioned that the academy building exists within a micro shed of the larger watershed, McDougall recalled.

“It was a kind of epiphany for the artists to realize that right in the neighborhood where we are situated, you can see that … the water flows to the Schuylkill from here and there is buried, underground, this creek called Minnow Run,” said McDougall. “And so they decided, based on their own revelation, to try to translate that into a public experience. How do you experience the watershed in your daily life and right in your neighborhood?”

The “art adventure walk” (formally titled How to Get to the River) was born. It is a 1.5-mile trek down Cherry Street to the river, beginning at the funnel/cistern/sousaphone bells tower (dubbed Attunement, and conceived by theater designer David Gordon and fabricated by sculptor Jordan Griska).

The trek wends its way to the Schuylkill and concludes with Inside the Watershed, a riverside arbor created by New Paradise but powered by a sound installation created by artists Liz Phillips and Annea Lockwood, who also created the sound installation currently in the academy’s Dietrich Gallery.

Whit MacLaughlin, the moving force behind New Paradise, said that New Paradise has been involved developing most of “Watershed Moment” with the aim “to really get the building and the public talking about important issues that can be expressed both as science and as art.”

Why the extensive use of sound installations?

“Really the sounds are the voice of the watershed,” he said. But how to express that for the museum proved elusive — until Perez mentioned that Cherry Street itself was “a micro shed.”

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“We ran out of the building and went behind and began investigating Cherry Street from 19th Street, past 20th, and then down to the river,” MacLaughlin said. He recalls thinking “oh my gosh, this is both an urban watershed and a sculpture.”

“So we began looking at it as both a scientific presence or a geophysical presence and a kind of artwork,” he said. “Sound kind of crept up on us as a way to think about this. … We are hoping to deliver a full-bodied experience of the watershed, and sound — it just showed up on our doorstep as one of the principal means that we can do that. But there’s a lot of visual components.”

It is this kind of thinking that McDougall has brought into the world of the academy, with its dioramas and collections of insects and skeletons.

Yes dinosaurs will remain, Cooper said. They represent a big part of the academy’s appeal.

But there is definitely a new approach to thinking about what the academy can be and what it is, he said.

“Scientists in the Patrick Center might think of watersheds in many different layered ways,” said McDougall. “But the artists are finding a way to communicate that and to share that and to bring people into a playful, lyrical experience of that.”

“Artists have so many different gifts that they can bring to the questions that science is based in and have complementary methods,” she said. “My interest is the way the methods of the sciences can dovetail with the methods of the arts and humanities and even history of science to enrich our experience of the world around us.”