Science and the Artist's Book

Smithsonian Institution Libraries Exhibition Gallery
and the Washington Project for the Arts

Washington, DC


Part One

    Smithsonian Institution Libraries
    Exhibition Gallery
    May 26-November 3, 1995

Part Two

    Washington Project for the Arts
    May 26-September 2, 1995
and again at the
    Smithsonian Institution Libraries
    Exhibition Gallery
    November 17, 1995-May 28, 1996

Science and the Artist's Book

ARTISTS CAN find inspiration in almost any subject, and science offers the artist an especially fertile field of exploration. Scientific images--views of the human body, sketches of remarkable inventions, charts of outer space--can be raw materials for an artist's imagination. And processes by which scientists make their discoveries are analogous to methods used by artists in their pursuit of solutions to creative problems. Both scientists and artists rely on close observation, experimentation, and innovative thinking for results. When scientists and artists communicate their discoveries through combinations of images and words, they establish a link between the two fields through the shared format of the book.

The book has long served as a container for scientific and technical knowledge. Vitruvius' ten books on architecture and Robert Hooke's book of microscopic views are striking examples. Both contain detailed illustrations which clarify the texts.

Artists have been involved for centuries in the process of creating books. They have served as illustrators for all manner of volumes (including scientific books) and have crafted beautiful bindings, alphabets, and page formats for an array of publications. But only recently have individual artists begun producing their own books as complete artistic statements.

The artist's book of today is often made by a single artist who assumes roles traditionally held by an assortment of people working collaboratively. Book artists may use unusual materials and nontraditional bindings to help convey their messages. Each element of the final book--visual content, words, and structure--helps convey the book's theme.

Science and the Artist's Book explores how science can serve as a springboard for artistic creation. A select group of nationally recognized book artists was invited to create original works of art inspired by the Heralds of Science, a 200-volume collection of classic scientific texts housed in the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, Special Collections of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Each artist has selected one Heralds volume and has created a book which reinterprets the subject, theories, or illustrations of the scientific work. The resulting exhibition is a surprising dialogue between science and the visual arts which may offer clues to the creative process itself.

Carol Barton, co-curator
May 1995

Heralds of Science

THIS EXHIBITION takes its inspiration from the Heralds of Science, a collection of works in the history of science once owned by Bern Dibner and now part of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Special Collections Department. These books, pamphlets, and journal articles were selected by Dr. Dibner for their role in proclaiming new scientific truths and concepts. The Heralds, drawn from the classical periods of Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the modern era, are books that set forth ideas and explanations for all manner of natural phenomena or describe inventions which have forever changed human life and society around the world, such as Alessandro Volta's description of the pile battery or Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

As an electrical engineer, inventor, collector of books, and philanthropist, Bern Dibner combined the best qualities of an inquisitive thinker with the vision of a man determined to preserve the original sources of the past for future generations. In 1974, his collection of 200 Heralds and approximately 8,000 other books and 1,600 groups of manuscripts was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, to help establish a library for research in the history of science and technology.

As Dr. Dibner wrote in the preface to his catalog of the Heralds, "To live in this age of science without an awareness of its fascinating origins is to miss much of the spirit of its attainments." The Dibner Library of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, located in the National Museum of American History, makes these treasures available for consultation by scholars and others interested in learning about the history of science from the original sources.

In uniting the two distinct disciplines of art and science, this exhibition reveals some of the common threads between the creation of art and the process of scientific investigation and technological invention. Scientists and artists both require a keen sense of observation, vital powers of imagination, the persistence to achieve their visions through hard work and perseverance in the face of many challenges, and the ability to communicate their discoveries to a broader audience. The arrangement of these scientific texts side by side with their artistic offspring is a way of emphasizing aspects of creativity that are common to science as well as to art.

Diane Shaw, co-curator
May 1995

Exhibition Curators

    Carol Barton and Diane Shaw

with assistance from

    Ellen B. Wells and Robin F. Moore

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the Washington Project for the Arts gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the The Glen Eagles Foundation and the Smithsonian Special Exhibition Fund.

Exhibition design, editing, and production

    Office of Exhibits Central, Smithsonian Institution


    Office of Printing and Photographic Services, Smithsonian Institution
    D. James Dee
    Richard Klein