Scientific Illustrations for the Blind (Natural History Museum, London, Jan 2014)

Scientific Illustrations for the Blind (Natural History Museum, London, Jan 2014)

In the last few months I’ve gotten quite interested in scientific illustration and scientific models. Just as I am fascinated by maps as both art and information, I suppose I really like scientific images because they are also both art and a record of the natural world. I am actually more excited when I see a scientific image/model which is fantastically detailed and beautiful and then discover that its maker says that they consider themselves to be a scientist/botanist/anatomical specialist first and foremost before considering themselves an artist, because more often than not it will indicate more attention to detail and accuracy. (Alas, I have to admit I am quite pedantic and a geek at heart). Even though there can be photographs (and in the case of mapping, satellite data), in the end there is a lot more value and skill involved in scientific illustration and cartography because they often capture details which other methods of imaging cannot. The color and form of a living object can be captured forever and selected important details can be extracted and highlighted so as to make it more understandable and valuable as a record than just a photograph could.

Since school is so very close to the Natural History Museum, it has been my goal to go there as often as I can. Unfortunately its vastness often means that I spend a lot of time just wandering about or blithely finding my way around the exhibits (I am also that annoying sort of person who has to read all the text, which then takes a very long time).

The other day, I FINALLY found the Images of Nature section (how did I miss it before?), which included a very interesting Braille and Tactile guide to its exhibits. I was very excited because I had been told these guides existed but hadn’t really noticed or found them before. This is what they looked like on the inside:

Images of Nature – Braille and Tactile Guide





Textures and arrows!
The textures were very interesting to touch, but… I don’t know about you but I seriously cannot imagine what meaning an arrow would have for a person who has been blind since birth. Not to say that a blind person could not learn what an arrow means, but as the most expedient manner to explain something – what is an arrow? An arrow does not exist in a blind person’s world, surely! What meaning would an arrow have to a person who cannot see what it is pointing at? How would that understanding that an arrow means to refer to something, or to gesture towards it or a direction (or to direct one’s gaze towards something). Would it work the same way for a blind person then?


More exciting textures

Braille (lots of this)

As you will have noticed, a lot of these images were just outlines of exhibits, with their outlines raised up. I was very amused by it but also not sure if this was sufficient to explain a thing. Perhaps it is – i don’t know myself since I have never had to rely entirely on touching to understand an exhibit. But let’s say a blind man could touch every single part of an rhino on a page. Would it make it any clearer to the blind person that this was a rhino, and this was what it was like? Is this not a bit like that joke where a group of blind men approach an elephant and each of them happens to hold on to a different part, prompting each to say “the elephant is like a long string!” (tail) or “the elephant is like a tree trunk!” (leg) or “the elephant is like a papery flat sheet!” (ear)

There was an exhibit comparing the different representations of dodo birds in scientific illustrations. The guide tries to explain that there are differences (subtle differences) between the two drawings. I am not sure but will one be able to tell the difference through touch? DOES IT WORK? Will someone visually impaired please tell me?

The two different dodo bird pictures in reality.

Touching a dodo…
An interesting fact is that the “original” dodo skeleton they have at the Natural History Museum is actually made up from several different dodo skeleton, and this means that its famous depiction as a slightly dumpy fat bird might actually be flawed, and there have been attempts to reimagine it as something a little more “svelte” than it is thought to be by most. I’ll write about that more in another post about their “Treasures” collection (which is also absolutely fantastic for anyone interested in the history of science)…

The funny part is imagining a blind person touching an embossed impression of a bird that now no longer exists, and on top of that perhaps even the impression of the dodo bird is all wrong anyway, because even the seeing-people don’t really know either!

Incorrect use of the braille sheets.
What can I say, with all the children and their pencils running around the museum, it was bound to happen…

0 responses to “Scientific Illustrations for the Blind (Natural History Museum, London, Jan 2014)”

  1. Hi Debbie, Thanks for your kind comments. When you were talking about birdwatching I was reminded of this great essay about "reading is the enemy of looking" by Dutch artist Esther Polak. She took up birdwatching to learn to see in a new way. Very much recommended:

    And you wrote about the chewing gum and lichen. The British artist Joanne Lee has made a booklet and a podcast about gum (and much more). It's nice to listen to:

    And your work has the same high quality! Can't wait for part two of the Kensington Gall.