Yale Peabody Museum: Beauty and the Beetle: Coleoptera in Art and Science

Date: Tuesday, June 06, 2017
Duration: All Day

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, 170 Whitney Avenue, New Haven, CT 06511

The Yale Peabody Museum is open:
Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Sunday Noon to 5:00 pm


Beauty and the Beetle: Coleoptera in Art and Science
May 27 - August 6, 2017

Beauty and the Beetle: Coleoptera in Art and Science, opens Saturday, May 27, at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The exhibition, on view through August 6, combines select beetle specimens from the Peabody collections with larger than life beetle-inspired art by New Haven sculptor Gar Waterman and Bethany photographer William Guth, both masters of their craft.

Like Dinosaurs Take Flight, also on view at the Peabody, Beauty and the Beetle employs the interpretive nature of art to augment the science presented by engaging audiences and arousing the imagination in ways not available to science alone. “Artists and scientists alike are diligent students of nature, each investigating its subject in remarkably similar ways: science to document and explain, and art to interpret and express,” reads an exhibition statement.

A larger goal of Beauty and the Beetle is the quest for “the deeper appreciation for the fantastic creatures that call Earth home – including humanity – and encourage us to reflect and respect the environments that support us all.”

Waterman, who proposed the exhibition concept to Museum staff, hopes to encourage viewers to “move beyond the predictable revulsion to the insect world.” He exclaims, “Most people who encounter coleopterans would sooner crush them underfoot than marvel at their exquisite architecture. I’d like to think that this exhibit might help to change that fact.”

Leonard Munstermann, senior research scientist in epidemiology at Yale and head curator of entomology at the Peabody, curated the exhibition. He notes, “At first we thought his proposal was a little nutty, but the evolving synergism in the group has produced a remarkable amalgamation of art and science.”

Beetles are a group of insects that form the order Coleoptera. Their front pair of wings is hardened into wing-cases, called elytra, distinguishing them from most other insects. They include more species than any other order and constitute nearly a quarter of all known types of animal life. Of the one million species of insects known to scientists today, nearly half – about 400,000 – are beetles. They are found in habitats across the globe, and take on a wide variety of shapes and sizes, the largest being 400 times longer than the smallest.

Actual specimens are small if not miniscule. Waterman and Guth met the challenge of transforming the microscopic into the extraordinary, the mundane into the heroic, by supersizing the scale of these fascinating creatures. Waterman, who calls himself “a nature-obsessed artist whose work explores the architecture of natural design,” pairs larger than life metal sculptures with beetle specimens to reveal by altered scale the remarkable details of beetle anatomy. To inform his work, he met with Munstermann and fellow entomologist Bill Krinsky and, in the Peabody Division of Entomology, observed specimens to learn about their anatomy.

The art form he employs is bricolage, a construction of whatever materials come to hand. His sculptures were initially inspired by metal stampings that were cast-offs from an automobile brake parts manufacturer. They resembled insect legs. “What began as found object art evolved into a science lesson in entomology,” Waterman explains. “The more I studied beetles to inform my art work, the more fascinated I became with their extraordinary biology and biodiversity.”

A video in the exhibition shows Waterman at work in his Westville studio transforming brake parts into adult beetle sculptures. The work requires a lot of cutting and shaping using numerous tools to which this artist is no stranger – industrial laser cutter, angle grinder, TIG welder, and MIG’s electric arc. Hundreds of individual welds are required to complete each section of the sculpture.

The magnificent oversized beetle photographs in the exhibition – high resolution color inkjet prints – are the work of William Guth. Both art and anatomy lesson, they feature amazing colors and exoskeleton topographies that straddle the line between abstract art form and biology. Guth cites three elements of his macro photography that were significant to capturing the fine detail of specimens this size – lighting, camera control, and photo-editing software. Fourteen images of a subject were taken at different focal points, then combined to produce a fully focused image and selectively enhanced detail.

The beetles on display are stunning themselves, representing the amazing beauty and complexity of nature’s art. The largest group of beetles are the weevils, or snout beetles of the Curculionidae family. One of six groups of Coleoptera on display, they comprise about 90,000 species – more than all species of fishes, amphibians, reptiles (including birds), and mammals combined – and range in size from a grain of sand to 1.5 inches long.

Other Coleoptera on view include the stag beetles (Lucanidae family), longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae family), scarab beetles (Scarabaeidae family), and ground beetles (Carabidae family). In each case, specimens show the many extraordinary variations of rostrums, antennae, mandibles, and other features. 

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