The Science and Art of Sackler

by Mattie Kahn

The Science Center at Harvard all but hums with the energy of experimentation. Within its labyrinth-like depths, students -- armed with textbooks, graphing calculators, microscopes -- probe the accepted boundaries of science by committing themselves to the investigation of the world around them. The Science Center in name, as well as in purpose is an obvious hub for scientific exploration on campus. Since the beginning of September, it has also found an unlikely affiliate in its pursuits. A little ways down Cambridge Street, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum has debuted its latest exhibit: Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe highlights the historical relationship between intellectual curiosity and art.

In the 16th century, hundreds of years before the world would be introduced to the computer or even to the first wristwatch, the work of scientists and artists overlapped in beautiful and edifying ways. This intersection between lab and studio is prominently mounted on the walls of Sackler through December 10th. Within the space of the first gallery of the exhibition alone, you’ll find an array of painstakingly detailed maps, anatomically precise depictions of animals and classical interpretations of planetary movements and astronomy. Of particular applicability to the Harvard education model are Jan Sadeler’s dynamic engravings, The Seven Liberal Arts (1575), which depict personifications of the verbal arts—grammar, rhetoric and dialectic, and the mathematical—arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. And as students here puzzle over which class they should take to fulfill their United States in the World requirement, one can imagine the engravings as a kind of Platonic, early program in General Education.

The exhibit also features works by such storied illustrators as Cranach, the Elder, Alfred Dürer, Hans Holbein and Peter Breugel, alongside images of less fame, but certainly of no less visual worth. And while most museums, particularly those displaying artifacts from the 1500s, operate under a strict "no-touching" policy, Prints includes facsimiles of early sundials, calendars and anatomical structures to make the exhibit as interdisciplinary and interactive as possible.

That the creative minds behind these works were also diagnosticians, chemists, cartographers and calendar-makers is brilliantly expressed in the curation of macabre anatomical studies, detailed maps and interactive calendars. Jacob Matham’s Sperm Whale Beached Near Berkhey (1598) displays another vocational skill of 16th century artists—Cro-Magnon beat reporting. In the wall description that accompanies Matham’s paper engraving of an enormously scaled beached whale, it is written that Matham hoped to make the whale "famous, so that people can talk about it." While the era in which trained painters were needed to spread news is long gone, and the gap between the Northwest Labs and the VES department can seem yawning, Prints and the Pursuits of Knowledge reminds us that curiosity, as it is conveyed through art, math, science and music will always be a universal language.