David Rabkin


David Rabkin

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Art/Science Gallery

Between 2008 and 2017, I directed a gallery at the Museum of Science that used art to engage visitors in substantive topics, shift their perspectives and world-views, and offer contemplative experiences in an often too-hectic museum. In my introduction to an exhibition co-developed with painter Anne Neely, I summarized the gallery’s most fundamental goal:

Inspiring curiosity and appreciation of science is central to the role of a science museum. At the Museum of Science, we focus not so much on the facts of science but on thinking itself – particularly inquiry. Art, when presented as the core experience rather than as adornment, draws visitors into contemplative inquiry and enables paths of learning unavailable otherwise.

The project started through a collaboration with journalist and photographer David Arnold. We produced and mounted an exhibit juxtaposing Bradford Washburn’s aerial photographs of glaciers from the 1930s and 1940s with a matching set by Arnold from 2005, 6 and 7. The exhibit toured other venues and proved that art could engage science center visitors and make science accessible, relevant and memorable.

Building on this success, as champion and often as lead curator, I worked with artists and museum staff to create or host fourteen exhibits. These ranged from a multi-year collaboration (with Anne Neely) producing an exhibit with 14 new paintings to displays of existing work.

For the most part, the exhibits focused on the art, displaying them as art. Each included an introductory panel to explain why we – a science museum – had mounted it and to articulate key messages. Some offered additional interpretation, but always in ways that allowed the art to be experienced as art and to encourage inquiry driven by the art rather than passive “seeking of answers” from interpretive text.

I hope you’ll be intrigued by the descriptions that follow of the exhibits produced during my leadership of the gallery.

– David Rabkin, 2021

2008: Double Exposure / David Arnold

Double Exposure: Photographing Climate Change paired aerial photographs of glaciers shot by Brad Washburn in the late 1930s with matching images taken by David Arnold during the summers from 2005 to 2007. Museum staff helped Arnold write explanatory panels to help the audience find and put into perspective the differences revealed by each pair of photographs.

The image pairs make visceral the dramatic scale of the changes we have observed. And while climate does change naturally, we’re used to changes taking place over tens or hundreds of thousands of years.  These changes become particularly alarming (and point a finger at human activity as causal) when we recognize that they occurred in less than 70 years. 

2009: Manufactured Landscapes / Edward Burtynsky

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky creates mesmerizing and beautiful photographs of industry’s destruction of the Earth.

He writes: “These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; the search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success.

Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of the planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.”

2009/10: Running the Numbers / Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan wants us to feel the scale of human consumption.  Since we humans have trouble making sense of large numbers – like the 2.4 million pounds of plastic entering our oceans every hour – he creates art that allows us to experience the scale of human impact more viscerally.

2010: Inside the Mind of M.C. Escher

The Museum created this exhibit to display artifacts in its collection and to bring our guests – experientially – inside M.C. Escher’s mind. Escher once said, “For me, it remains an open question whether [my work] pertains to the real of mathematics or to that of art.”

The exhibit used art and mathematics as alternative ways of “seeing” the concepts at the heart of Escher’s inquiry.

2011: Voices without Faces - Voices without Races / Halsey Burgund

In 2011, the Museum of Science hosted the traveling exhibit Race: Are We So Different?  To complement it and connect it to our region, we collaborated with a half dozen community groups to interview over 100 people, capturing thoughts and stories about race from people who live and work along Route 28, which winds from New Hampshire past the Museum and down to Cape Cod. It cuts through city and country, wealth and poverty, and almost every ethnicity one can imagine.

Sound artist Halsey Burgund mixed and thematically organized phrases, sentences and stories, set them to music, and placed them all in the context of a slow-motion drive down Route 28, giving voice and context to our community, and inviting visitors to relax for a while, soak up the impact of race on their diverse neighbors, and contemplate its meaning in their lives.

2011: Around the World in 25 Diets / Peter Menzel & Faith D’Aluisio

Menzel and D’Aluisio have, in their own words, “eaten our way around the world many times to produce works of journalism that compare and contrast what and how and why we eat what we eat.” Food offers an intriguing and revealing way to understand people and place because it is intertwined with geography, culture, history, economics and genetics. In Around the World in 25 Diets, we incorporated Menzel’s photographs and edited D’Aluisio’s essays to create a series of exhibit components, each devoted to one person, one diet, one calorie count, and one way of living on Planet Earth.

2012: Bonsai: Creating Art with Nature / Michael Levin

The art of bonsai is a window into the shapes that please us as well as the rules of nature. Our collaboration with bonsai artist Michael Levin allowed museumgoers to experience and learn about bonsai, view it as an exploration of the aesthetic and physiological, and appreciate it as art and craft. The exhibit posed particular logistical challenges as the plants and the museum both needed to be protected from insects, and the plants needed special care outside their regular controlled greenhouse environment.

2012: Ocean Stories / Multiple Artists, coordinated by WHOI

Ocean Stories was produced by a group of artists who were each paired with a researcher from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The Museum coached and supported the WHOI organizers and managed the process of gallery design and installation. The resulting exhibit introduced visitors to a range of scientific ideas and artistic techniques.

2012: The Honeybee Revealed / Rose-Lynn Fisher

Visitors looking at Rose Lynn Fisher’s electron microscope images of honeybees are invited into a bizarre and foreign world. Are they viewing landscapes from alien planets? The diversity of forms reveals the elegance and power of evolution through the intriguing details of the honeybee. Fisher observes that “the myriad forms of one little bee hint at the unending complexity of nature, the worlds within worlds right here, all around and including us!” These images demonstrate that scientific instruments can be transformative and reveal great beauty as well as open our eyes.

2013: Climate Change in Our World / Gary Braasch

Climate Change in Our World, featuring the work of environmental photojournalist Gary Braasch, conveys the many different impacts of historically-recent increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases. Our world is a system, and Braasch documents the many ways in which humanity’s use of fossil fuels touches that system and our lives.

2014: Water Stories / Anne Neely

Painter Anne Neely writes: “Water is mysterious, powerful, and staggeringly beautiful; but unfortunately water is in such peril that it will deeply affect our future.” A chance meeting and conversation on her concerns grew first into a discussion about art and education and then into the collaboration that produced Water Stories.

Regarding her methods, Neely explains, “I approach painting as a conversation, just as a scientist does, and it is through my investigation of these questions that a painting is built.”

 I find in her paintings emotion, power and enough ambiguity to draw me in. Viewers sense the paintings’ energy and substance, and ask, “What exactly is she depicting?”

Her work compels people to inquire and construct meaning for themselves, which in turn means that the ideas become part of who they are – the best kind of learning.

2015: Road Salt: A 4,500 Mile Journey / Allison Cekala

Who knew that Boston’s road salt has traveled half the globe before it messes up our boots? Photographer Allison Cekala spotted mountains of road salt and then photographed its intriguing and unlikely journey from Chile. She marveled, “We use the salt once, then it slips out of our consciousness; but the salt continues on a journey outside of human time.” This exhibit could have been about almost any material that we humans use because even the most mundane of them offer eye-opening stories about human activity, the workings of our planet, the past, and the future.

2016: Macro or Micro? / Stephen Young and Paul Kelly

Geographer Stephen Young and biologist Paul Kelly teamed up to create Macro or Micro? Challenging Our Perceptions of Scale, which juxtaposes images of the smallest biological phenomena with landscapes captured by satellite. Similar patterns exist at wildly different scales, challenging our ability to recognize the size, relative to us, of the things we see, and thus judge a fundamental characteristic of our relationship with them. The exhibit encourages us to have fun as we experience the limitations of our own knowledge and perspectives, learning as we go.

2017: The Many Faces of Our Mental Health / L. Cutrell, B. Cohen, R. Simpson

In 2015, I was approached by a team consisting of an artist, a doctor/researcher and a journalist working together to use art to destigmatize mental illness and build empathy for, and understanding of, people who suffer from it. Working collaboratively to develop themes, scientific content, and the concept for a museum exhibit, we identified critical themes for visitors to explore. Three stood out for me: 

First, we all have mental health challenges at some point in our lives; it’s normal because in fact we all are on a/the “spectrum,” just in different places at different times.

Second, we can’t tell who’s suffering just by looking at them, as anyone can see by examining portraits from the 99 Faces Project which presents portraits of people with no history of mental illness, sufferers, and their caretakers in equal numbers.

Finally, science indicates that mental illness is just that – an illness, which, like others, is the product of genes and environment, and is sometimes preventable and often substantially treatable if diagnosed and addressed early.

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