Saturday, June 9, 2012

X-Ray Vision: Fish Inside Out

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through August 5, 2012

I had been planning to write that this was the first exhibit I'd seen in a while that wasn't an art show, but now, having seen it, I'm not sure if I can say that or not.  The show commentary takes the view that this is a union of science and art, and that the X-rays of fish on display are works of art.  I've been debating the question in my mind and am not sure I've come up with an answer.

The Natural History Museum owns a "fish library."  This is a collection of fish specimens, kept in a special alcohol solution in order to preserve them, that sit on shelves and can be retrieved for study by scientists.  They are arranged in evolutionary order (love that concept).  Although I've worked in libraries for over 20 years, I had never heard of a fish library before.  I'm charmed by the idea that somewhere, far from the glamor of the main museum and its admiring visitors, there are people toiling in obscurity not just to preserve particular examples of fish, but to keep them organized so that future researchers can learn more from them.  Many of the fish in the library are quite old; some of specimens date from the 1800s.  The fact that they are still available for study is a testament to the skill and dedication of generations of museum workers.  The Smithsonian's fish library is the largest (over 5 million specimens), most diverse and most important fish library in the world.  I have no idea how one measures the importance of a fish library, but I'm not about to quibble with their self-designation.

One way that scientists are able to study these specimens is through the use of x-rays.  Rather than having to dissect a specimen, destroying it in the process, in order to learn about the fish's inner working, an x-ray allows the researcher to see "what's inside" without any damage to the specimen.  Rather like having your cake and eating it too.  The exhibit is a display of many fish x-rays, along with some actual specimens (in jars, just like in your high school science lab).  The detail is impressive; you can see individual vertebrae on some species and details of scales on others.

The opportunity to see how the fish are put together is great, and the x-rays are lovely, but are they art?  I have no doubt that photography generally is art, and that x-rays are related to photography, sort of an internal picture rather than an external one.  Where I have the difficulty is deciding if the transitive property holds: if photography is art, and x-rays are photography, are then x-rays art?  I'm inclined to come down on the negative side here, but I'm open to persuasion.  It seems to me that photography is art when the photographer composes a scene, or waits for just the right lighting, or makes some sort of statement about the human condition.  Do fish x-rays fall into this category?  Great topic for panel discussion...

Verdict: Well worth seeing, and less crowded than the typical Natural History Museum display.

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