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August 30, 2005
Contact: Brian Grubbs, Museum Studies, (785) 864-4543

Luminous Hall Center exhibit to explore relationship between science and culture

LAWRENCE -- An interactive exhibition scheduled for this fall at the University of Kansas will allow visitors to examine amphibian specimens using handheld ultraviolet flashlights. The specimens will come from two of the world's important amphibian research collections to reveal how individual scientists and cultural dynamics shape science.

" Two Cultures: Collection" is the work of Dallas-based artist Tracy Hicks, whose work has previously appeared at museums and galleries nationwide, including the Dallas Museum of Art, the African American Museum in Dallas and the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. For "Two Cultures: Collection," Hicks is casting specimens from the KU Natural History Museum and from the Field Museum, Chicago, in materials that fluoresce and phosphoresce (emit light from radiation). The beautifully detailed casts will be displayed in fluid-filled glass jars, just as the specimens the casts come from are preserved in containers filled with ethanol.

" Two Cultures: Collection" will open in October at KU's Hall Center for the Humanities and will run through March 18, 2006. The title "Two Cultures: Collection" alludes to C.P. Snow's book The Two Cultures, in which Snow argued that a breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

The casts will be exhibited under varying lighting conditions to reveal detail and enhance their transparency and radiance; visitors will be able to shape their own experience by examining the jars and specimens with handheld ultraviolet flashlights that supercharge the phosphorescent specimens and activate fluorescent colors that only glow in the UV light.

"The exhibit will allow the general public to see animals, many of which are extinct, that are too fragile to actually be put on display," Hicks said. "Integrating the two collections will also reveal something of the sensibilities of the scientists who collected them - filtered through my own artistic sensibility."

John Simmons, collection manager for amphibians and reptiles at the KU museum and director of KU's museum studies program, and Marjorie Swann, KU associate professor of English, are the recipients of a grant from the Museum Loan Network that is financing the exhibit.

" Today, it is widely understood that the practice of science is never purely objective," Simmons said. "Both the questions scientists ask and the ways in which they try to answer them are always culturally determined; thus natural history collections like those Hicks is working with necessarily embody the beliefs and ideals of the cultures that create and preserve such collections."

The KU museum has the world's largest scientific collection of New World amphibians; the Field Museum has the most significant collection of Asian and African amphibian specimens. Both collections include many endangered and extinct species. Funds from the Museum Loan Network have made it possible for KU to borrow specimens from the Field Museum, specimens that will remain at KU during the exhibit and will be available to scholars and to the public by appointment in the Natural History Museum's fluid-preserved specimen laboratory.

Interpretive materials will provide both scientific and cultural contexts for the casts. The exhibit will include photographs, original field notes, and equipment used to collect specimens in the field from both the Field Museum and KU. The exhibit will also document its own development in Hicks' studio to enable the audience to understand the aesthetic transformation from research specimens to interpreted objects.

From boyhood, Hicks says he was drawn to creatures and to collecting - vocations he pursues today by breeding endangered frog and fish species. His formal art training began in 1960, when he apprenticed to a goldsmith.

" Perhaps because I was working with an element most cultures deem precious," Hicks said, "I began to think about many unlikely objects that, as individuals, we invest with value and meaning - all those treasures we cache in the bottoms of our sock drawers. That insight spurred inquiry into the simple but profound question: What is it that we - as individuals, as tribes, as cultures, as nations and as a species - do or do not find precious enough to preserve?

The Museum Loan Network is supporting the exhibit as part of its mission to facilitate the long-term loan of art and objects of cultural heritage among U.S. institutions to enhance the installations of museums, thus enabling them to better serve their communities. MLN grant programs help museums respond to the increasing public demand for installations that are relevant to a range of age groups and cultural heritages and to provide better artistic, cultural and historical contexts for works on display. MLN programs have led to the sharing of objects among different types of museums, fostering collaborations between institutions of varying size and discipline throughout the United States. Funded and initiated by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the MLN is administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Office of the Arts.

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