Interview with Daniel Lewis – The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Garden
Daniel Lewis is Dibner Senior Curator for the History of Science and Technology, Huntington Library, San Marino, California. He is also a lecturer in environmental history at the California Institute of Technology, and an associate research professor at Claremont Graduate University. During our tour of LA, the PLASMA team met Daniel to chat about his favourite objects in the collection and the role of museums in.
PLASMA: Can you tell us more about where we are?
Daniel Lewis: We are in the hall for history of science and technology in the Huntington Library in Los Angeles California. I was tasked with doing a permanent history of science exhibition.
What I wanted to do, and I had complete freedom to do what I wanted which was awesome and also terrifying, was to decide to draw on things that really reflected the Huntington’s collection, so everything in here is out of our library collection. It’s a chance for us to draw on our collection strengths. This isn’t really a science exhibit, people are not supposed to jump up and down in things like they do in science museums. I picked the outer part of the cookie, the physical sciences like optics and astronomy and then the middle part or the creamier centre of the cookie are the natural sciences, medicine and natural history.
When you do exhibits and you have a particular theme it helps people understand the narrative. The theme can be subtle or it can be dramatic and obvious but you need what I like to think of as a big idea. The big idea in this exhibit is beauty in science. Beauty is a very elastic notion, everybody has a sense of what they consider beautiful and its different kinds of beauty, so it’s not just aesthetic visual beauty although that’s certainly important. It’s also beautiful ideas, including things like say Darwin’s theory of evolution. Ideas of scale which are also beautiful because they are so astonishing, from the microscopic to the cosmic. And things that are light years away from each other. So, this idea of beauty and science is something I try to turn everything in the exhibit towards. And you see that I worked it into my text on the wall and into the labels. At the same time, I want to tell stories that I think are important for people to understand. In the astronomy section the idea that we have reconceived our place within the universe is a fundamental idea. We have evolved from thinking that we are centre of the total enigma of the universe to understanding that we are really a tiny dot, in a much bigger space.
PLASMA: What themes does the exhibition explore?
Daniel Lewis: The exhibit is divided by sections. So, we are currently in the astronomy room, divided into ‘Location’, ‘The Telescope’ and ‘Naked eye observing’. The naked eye observing one is important because people misunderstand the fact that before telescopes came around in 1608 we didn’t really understand the concept of the heavens, but we had some really powerful tools that helped them understand the orbits of planets, the locations of planets in the sky and predictions of future locations that didn’t involve a telescope at all.
This one here is one of my favourites, called Caesars’ Astronomy by Peter Apian a 1540 edition. It is a calculating instrument that lets you predict the positions of the planets in the solar system depending on the month and the part of the planet where you are. It’s a very important work but it’s also beautiful. It has these highly intricate moving discs, or volvelles,
which are rotating paper disks which perform actual calculations, they are very accurate to be nearly 500 years old and made of paper! They are very clever in their design, these really thin paper columns, and they lay flat and stay inside the book. They are wonderful calculation devices.
The conservation pattern drives the content a lot here. We normally have about 100 items on show, but there is always a Newton item and a Galileo item. We do page turns every week so there is a different thing on display all the time!
Over here is my other favourite, Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, which was published in 1610. It shows for the very first time the faces of the Moon under magnification because he had a telescope to do this. We had a replica of the telescope made for this exhibition so that people could have the experience of reading the book and seeing the moon. One of Galileo’s lessons was that the Moon is not this perfect polished sphere but it is lumpy and it has craters. So, I wanted to make a globe with relief – I phoned this shop in London and asked for a made to measure globe that would fit in the further corner of the gallery. You can look through it and find Galileo’s moon on the other side of the corridor!
The modern astronomy stuff is also really important, just like the historical stuff. So, we have the Hubble papers for example and some of the Mount Wilson Observatory papers from the last hundred years… We also have a very famous letter from Einstein, 1913 about gravity… We have really explored the field from the 18th century up until the present.
PLASMA: What is the oldest space image you have here?
Daniel Lewis: The first space photography was done in the 19th century. Mount Wilson for example used to attach cameras to telescopes and just start clicking away. In fact, what they did is very important. In Mount Wilson, they stablished the plate library, so they have millions of glass plates of the night sky. They are still heavily researched and used today because they photographed some things that no one knew before.
Some of these images from Hubble show his interest in the expanding Universe. He was the one that helped us understand that the Universe is expanding, and he did it largely through photography. He would take measurements over time of the same portion of the night sky, which made obvious the Universe was expanding.
Humans are curious by nature and keen to understand that there’s more out there than meets the eye so we heavily rely on calculations, magnification and illustration to understand the complexities of our Universe.
PLASMA: As a curator how do you think the relationship between science and the visual arts is evolving?
Daniel Lewis: I think people are still drawing to particular kinds of aesthetics beyond the strictly scientific. It doesn’t take much to turn something from a scientific object into something artistic so if you look at this tryptic by Thomas Wright, they show these planets really crowded together but in essence they are things of different brightness, different diameter so they are taking a concept that people will recognise and turning it into something that is more interesting visually and builds a platform to talk about science. Art is normally accompanied by words, either in a book, or in a gallery… Art has always reinforced, served as support and clarified things for people. We are wired as humans to have an aesthetic understanding if things. There are a lot of scientists that are artists, and understand science through art. In some ways art can be a tool for humans to be inspired by and understand science.
PLASMA: What’s your ultimate favourite in the exhibition?
Daniel Lewis: I have so many things I really adore in here, all these natural history paintings are astonishing… We have the very first illustration of a pineapple!
As an environmental historian by inclination and training I think my favourite is On the origin of species. We have many different copies, translations interpretations… I think my favourite is one of the first editions, published in an edition of 1250 copies in 1859 sold out in two days. I’ve been doing a survey of every surviving copy and found over 400 of them in the last few years. Darwin is a big interest to me and modern evolutionary practices are an interest to me. We have so many great letters!
full article published in PLASMA magazine 5