Washington, DC is a pilgrimage city for visiting museums, historic houses, National Park sites, and the chance to stand in the footsteps of American history. But another set of organizations, with collections that fall somewhere on the spectrum of a museum or gallery, is influencing the DC cultural scene. The Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences (CPNAS) is a member of this niche group.
I recently met with Alana Quinn, Senior Program Associate, who has worked for nine and half years with the Director of CPNAS, JD Talasek, to discuss the role of CPNAS in DC. In addition to her training as a photographer and art historian, Ms. Quinn has recently completed her Masters in Museum Studies, from Johns Hopkins University.
Split between two locations in DC, CPNAS has an art collection, exhibition schedule, and a concert series. CPNAS also offers other events and symposia around the topics of art and science. They have even hosted local theater groups to perform science-related works; last summer, for example, the Shakespeare Theatre Company performed a staged reading of “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe.
These programs fall within the National Academy of Sciences’ goals of exploring the relationship between culture and science, engineering, and medicine, which guide CPNAS’ work. In the same vein as a museum, CPNAS functions with a mission statement, permanent collection, exhibition schedule, outreach program, and admission is free. While the first exhibit was in 1971, Quinn notes that the history of the art program really dates back to the building itself, completed in 1924, since so much consideration was given to art during its creation. The monumental architecture includes multiple galleries and detailed iconography from the history of science on murals, panels, and even elaborate doorknobs. Quinn emphasizes, “All of it celebrates science.”
Henry Bertoia, detail from sculpture series. Image courtesy of CPNAS.
CPNAS shows four to six new exhibits each year to promote the unique intersection of science and art. Ms. Quinn notes the highlights of her position, commenting, “I get to meet all of these amazing artists! I’m doing something different each day which keeps it fun, [it] never gets old.” CPNAS has a unique ability to discuss these topics in ways that museum are still struggling with, due to the silos of their mission statements. In an example of this interdisciplinary capacity, CPNAS just finished an exhibit of paintings by the artist Steve Miller; together the artist and CPNAS staff had discussed the difficulty of science-themed art being recognized in the mainstream art world and science community. Artists can often be pigeonholed into themes that many galleries or museums do not fully recognize, highlighting the continuing gaps between disciplines.
A keystone of CPNAS is the monthly discussion series DC Art and Science Evening Rendezvous (DASER), which educates with a new topic each month through panel presentations. Previously, CPNAS used to have one-offs on particular topics, but Director Talasek decided to research their audience and impact. Talasek reached out to the community and met with a broad swath of individuals to discuss how they could meet the needs for those interested in the connections of art and science. The DASER model encourages audience engagement, starting each session with the chance to share a current project. Quinn explains, “visitors have noted that this is a key piece to the evening, the chance to share what they are working on, and listen to what others do. It’s also nice because the speakers get to hear directly from their audience.” As a goal of the program is to foster new partnerships and collaboration across disciplines, each discussion is followed by a low-key reception where everyone can meet; even the simple gesture of providing nametags helps to nurture interactions among guests. Social media has begun to play an important role in the event as well – DASER is live-streamed and live-tweeted, providing an opportunity to take questions from the wider audience that cannot be present.
Caleb Cain Marcus Nigardsbreen, Norway, Plate I, 2011, Pigment fiber print. Image courtesy of CPNAS.
CPNAS’ permanent collection reflects this spirit of complexity and interdisciplinary connections. Ms. Quinn describes her favorite piece in the collection, a sculpture by Harry Bertoia (pictured above) that was part of a 1976 exhibit at NAS, as follows:
“It’s an abstraction of a bush. Bertoia is known for his diamond-shaped wire chairs designed for Knoll, but he was also a jewelry designer, printmaker, and sculptor. Many visitors and staff members who see the sculpture think that it is a brain and that the branches are neurons. I'm always delighted when people make this observation because the structure of neurons in the brain is very similar to the branching structure of plant life. It is fascinating to think about the similarities in structure of flora and fauna at the micro and macro levels.”
Photographer Caleb Cain Marcus is the featured artist in the next exhibit, A Portrait of Ice, opening Feb. 3, 2014 at CPNAS. He has traveled the world and documented the changing landscape of glaciers in places such as Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Alaska, and more. Unlike the traditional horizontal landscape, he takes unique vertical shots of glaciers, which he compares to the intimacy of a portrait. Cain Marcus captures beautiful details and colors, yet the closeness of the shot makes them almost indistinguishable from each other. He discusses this series as a way to connect people to the environment, another way to engage people with the cause – a fitting approach for the Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences.
Stay in touch with the exciting programs offered by CPNAS, and consider the unique art collections like this in your community.