Mural for Q?rius at the Smithsonian

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Open today! I’m honored to have created a mural for Q?rius (pronounced “curious”), the new education center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. My mural greets visitors to the 10,000 square foot interactive environment, just inside the Constitution Avenue entrance along the National Mall.

With 7,600,000 visitors in 2012, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History lays claim to most attended museum in North America—and is only 2nd in the world behind the Louvre in Paris, France (with its 9,720,000 annual visitors). Its collection includes more than 126 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts—from the Hope Diamond to the Hall of Dinosaurs.

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Q?rius combines labs, unparalleled access to collection vaults, creative studios and hangout spots—to inspire exploration by teenagers and help them understand how science is relevant to their everyday experience. This ties in with a national effort to increase interest in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. In a current series of New York Times editorials, the need is laid bare: the number of students pursuing careers in these fields is plummeting as the need for those workers soars.

“We’re taking the traditional museum and turning it inside out to help teens make sense of the world they are inheriting and giving them access to all our expertise—they can rub shoulders with our scientists, handle really cool objects and use amazing microscopes,” said Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. “Q?rius is a place where young people and science experts can come together to try to figure out how we will meet the challenges of the future.”

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The mural is a wonderful opportunity to challenge the visitor’s perceptions of science. Many teens don’t have (or don’t know they have) exposure to science beyond their classroom text books. As a result, science is often perceived as difficult, intimidating, dry, esoteric … in other words, “not for me.” The mural has an opportunity to help reshape visitor’s ideas about science and set their expectations for an experience at Q?rius that is fun, personally relevant, and inspiring.

Read on for mural miscellany—from objectives and production notes to illustrated content and approach:

• The mural touches on each of the museum’s seven science departments: Anthropology, Botany, Entomology, Invertebrate Zoology, Mineral Sciences, Paleobiology and Vertebrate Biology.

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• It includes references to technology, both because technology provides a tool for understanding the natural world and because it underscores that the natural world and our world are intertwined. I incorporated video icons as they have stood the test of (non-geological) time and, unlike hardware, won’t quickly be outdated. Looking closely, you’ll find:

Play—Located just outside the sliding entry doors, the play icon serves as a whimsical directional arrow.

Pause—Located beneath the magnifying glass and adjacent to the quote where visitors may have reason to pause to read and reflect.

Audio—Adjacent to the stegosaurus, and referencing sound, this icon hints at the role a variety of senses play in understanding the natural world.

Closed Caption—Shown far-right as a speech bubble. Closed captions (CC) are sometimes synonymous with subtitles and are a means of displaying text on a visual display to provide additional or interpretive information.

Elapsed Time—0:41/1:17 (e.g. 41 seconds into a 1 minute & 17 second video). The passage of time is what history is all about and it seemed appropriate to include, albeit in a tech-oriented way.

• I wanted to explore the breadth and depth of science in a visually poetic manner, and reward the keen observer (while not impeding the flow of traffic through the Q?rius’s entrance and exit). And I hoped it would feel organically connected to the space. The mural’s density varies horizontally and vertically, dissipating as it reaches higher on the wall. Illustration extends over and off the photography, connecting disparate images while providing an illusion that it has run onto the wall itself. The illustration interacts with wall features, utilizing the windows and ceiling height to advantage. The circles and arrows speak to the concept of “connectedness”, in both our natural world and digital lives. The medium gray wall color comes down inside a few of the circles over the photographs and, conversely, a handful of circles on the wall above are filled with fragments of the photos below as if they are effervescing.

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• It was important to reference field guides and the discoveries inherent through observation. Q?rius encourages visitors to create their own digital Field Book, earning badges by completing activities, and extending their experience from the center to the web. In many ways, the mural is a personal field guide, a visual exploration of my observations through notes, drawings, and photographs. The stegosaurus skeleton was actually drawn from the museum’s own specimen upstairs.

All of the photographs included in the mural were taken with my medium format film camera over a period of 10 years. I employ a limited depth of field in many of my photographs, and often crop the image within the viewfinder at close range—techniques that both communicate a focus on observation and “doing”. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that features in the four right-most photographs line up with one another to create a kind of “exquisite corpse”. The undulating line is reflected in the drawings of the stegosaurus and giant squid.

• Illustrations of various specimens from an adjacent Collections Wall were “put back into nature.” Specimens were chosen for a variety of reasons: to reflect different research departments at the Museum; for features that would translate well in black & white; and for their ability to integrate well with other mural elements. The drawings were made very literally from the specimens to increase the chances that visitors will recognize the recontextualization. Looking closely, you’ll find an Australian Bark Painting, Maasai Shield, Harlequin Beetle, Striped Skunk, Sea Star, and various pinecones and feathers.

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• “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” This quote from Henry David Thoreau resonated with the idea of “looking deeper.” Like life generally, the center aspires to reward the curious.

• My initial sketches were composed from relatively low-resolution scans of my photographic negatives and hand-drawn illustrations. I work on a Mac and use Photoshop to compose unique elements; at one point my working file included 145 individual layers. Once the mural design was approved, the wall was measured to the quarter inch—identifying the precise location of electrical outlets, windows, security cameras, doors, hand rail and exit signs. At this point, the entire mural was rebuilt as a high-resolution file and all illustrations were redrawn larger and rescanned. Negatives were re-digitized via drum scanner to maximize their resolution (for the largest photographs, scans were approximately 1 GB each). To manage the unwieldy file size, I split the mural into two at the sliding entry door. The file to the left of the entry door was ultimately 4.3 GB; to the right it was 22.5 GB. Both were composed at actual size, at a resolution of 300 pixels/inch.

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The majority of my work-to-date has been reproduced at a much smaller scale for magazines, books, advertising and other miscellaneous collateral. The physical size of the mural (43 feet wide by 17.5 feet tall) was liberating in many respects, allowing me to think differently about my work and its future application.

I couldn’t be happier harnessing my passions to this end. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Bachelor of Art in Studio Art at the University of California, Davis. One of the most beautiful “artworks” I saw in school was a film of platelets running through a vein during a physiology class. This combination of form and function in nature is breathtaking and I am perpetually inspired by it. Perhaps this mural will encourage others to find their inspiration too.

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