How university museums bridge the gap between art and science

The Berkeley Art Museum, which reopens this month, joins host of institutions looking to cross disciplinary boundaries


It is hard to resist looking at images of your own brain. When the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) reopens on 31 January in a new $112m building, visitors will see intricate drawings of radiolaria by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel and sketches of the human brain’s branching neural networks by the Spanish-born Santiago Ramón y Cajal, known as the father of neuroscience.

The museum’s inaugural show, The Architecture of Life (31 January-29 May), attempts to bridge the art-science divide that the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow identified half a century ago as a source of society’s problems. The exhibition integrates scientific drawings with Tibetan mandalas, 16th-century lace fragments and more traditional art objects so thoroughly that “when you’re looking at these things in the installation, it’s not entirely clear what category they belong in”, says BAMPFA’s director Larry Rinder. He calls the show “radically interdisciplinary”.

While traditional art museums are still struggling to break down boundaries between curatorial departments, many university art museums are setting the bar even higher.

“It used to be that university art museums partnered with the French department, and that was considered interdisciplinary. That’s old hat. Now we are looking for new frontiers,” says Anne Leonard, a curator at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, who worked with doctors from the medical school to co-organise the 2014 exhibition Imaging/Imagining: The Body as Art.

University museums are well positioned for this kind of collaboration, which is in keeping with their mission of serving—and reflecting—a diverse academic community. Having a museum within walking distance of major research scientists also helps. At the Smart, Leonard’s “object roundtable” programme invites humanities and science professors to discuss the collection. This year’s theme is memory, and participants come from the English and physics departments as well as the Institute for Molecular Engineering.

“It’s increasingly clear that complex challenges we are facing are not going to be resolved by specialisation. No matter what we know about climate change empirically, we also have to connect it to social and political decisions,” says Gordon Knox, the director of the Arizona State University Art Museum, who has organised science-related exhibitions on food systems, climate change and “even the concept of the miracle”.

Knox has also developed a residency programme to give artists access to scientists. This has allowed Portuguese artist Miguel Palma to work with the robotics team behind the Mars exploration rovers and the Argentine artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg to consult the university’s meteorite collection.

Then there are attempts to use traditional works of art to train scientists. One of the most widely copied programmes was developed by Linda Friedlaender of the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut to help medical students hone the analytical skills needed to make good clinical diagnoses. The Enhancing Observational Skills course, which uses paintings like The Death of Chatterton (1856) by Henry Wallis, has been required of all first-year students at the Yale School of Medicine for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, James Chang, a plastic surgeon at the Stanford School of Medicine, has used the collection at Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts to teach students about the anatomy of the hand. Students visit the centre’s extraordinary collection of Rodin sculptures—it has about 200 altogether—to learn about medical conditions that can afflict the hand. A 2014 exhibition, Inside Rodin’s Hands: Art, Technology, and Surgery, brought together the sculptor’s work with student diagnoses.

Museum directors say that knowledge sharing and experimentation thrive in university settings because they are relatively free from the pressures exerted by the art market and the collector-trustee biases that affect larger metropolitan museums.

Rinder says: “College and university art museums do have the licence and opportunity to do things that other art museums don’t because their funding support is to a large extent separate from the typical mechanisms of the art world.”

Innovative art and science crossovers Cutting-edge conservation

The newly-reopened Harvard Art Museums in Boston, Massachusetts, made headlines in 2014 with a high-tech conservation alternative. It used digital projections to “correct” the serious colour loss and fading of murals by Mark Rothko without leaving a mark.

Mind-stretching shows

The exhibition Seeing Colour: Art, Vision and the Brain at the Nasher Museum at Duke University in North Carolina used prints by Josef Albers, Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder to explore optical illusions such as the Bezold effect and Chevreul effect. The 2014 show inspired a symposium that involved neurobiology, ophthalmology and biomedical engineering experts.

A new take on the Hudson River School

The Tang Museum at Skidmore College in New York invited biologists and environmental science professors to help organise a 2009 show about the Hudson River. The exhibition included scientific materials as well as fish trophies made out of pollutants and paintings from the Hudson River School.

Berkeley scientists on art One way for a university art museum to make connections to other disciplines is to invite them to talk about collection or exhibition objects. The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive has an ambitious line-up of scientists scheduled to speak at the institution this winter.

February 5: Evan Variano, an environmental engineering professor who specialises in fluid mechanics and motion, will talk about Viktor Schauberger’s drawings of water turbines and impeller

February 19: Dan Feldman, an associate professor of neurobiology, will discuss Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of brain structures

April 15: Chelsea Specht, an associate professor in the plant and microbial biology department, on Karl Blossfeldt’s botanical photographs