The traditional way for a science museum to explore water and the environment isn’t generally to fill a gallery with a cacophony of peeping frogs, or erect a 35-foot-tall tower of hoppers, cisterns, and sousaphone bells alongside a few bouncy dinosaurs in front of his building.
Philadelphia museums also don’t tend to send visitors on meandering paths that take them down the banks of the Schuylkill straight back onto the street, where they can hear the bubbling sounds of the riverbed rendered audible.
But that’s exactly what’s happening at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences in Logan Square, part of a conscious effort to revitalize the public experience of the institution, which was founded in 1812 and has been in its current building since 1876.
All of these projects – from the “art adventure” walk to the onlookers in the gallery to the tower of sousaphone bells out front – are elements of the “Watershed Moment”, the Academy’s first foray into commissioned art and the center of its celebration of “Water Year 2022”. “
Most of “Watershed Moment” — largely conceived by New Paradise Labs, a Philadelphia-based experimental performance group — debuts August 3 and runs through October 30. The river feeds backfeaturing the Peepers and other unexpected voices and sounds from the Schuylkill Watershed, opened June 1st and also runs through October 30th.)
In a major departure from previous practice, the academy deliberately uses art to think about exhibitions and programs, said Scott Cooper, the academy’s chief executive and president. Art is a “tool” that the Academy can use in service of its mission and to help visitors understand the urgency of environmental issues.
“We’re a scientific institution, we understand that, and we look to our curators, our collections managers, and our environmental scientists for all their knowledge and inspiration,” Cooper said in a recent interview. “But how do you convey your mission, which is an environmental mission, to understand the natural world and inspire everyone to care for it? How do you use other tools, other modalities? How do you reach the humanities? How do you reach the art? How do you use all these tools to keep people from just looking at what’s in front of them in an exhibition and thinking about what to expect in the future?”
One thing you do is bring in Marina McDougall, a veteran arts curator who honed her skills at the San Francisco Exploratorium and the Wattis Institute at the California College of the Arts. Less than a year ago, the academy tasked her with finding ways to “move people” to “think about what’s in store for them in the future.”
McDougall was not specifically called in to emphasize the art of programming. Rather, she has been asked to revitalize programming by seeking outside partnerships consistent with the Academy’s mission and identity as a science museum.
“These external partners can sometimes take the form of artists,” she said in an interview. “Or they can take the form of partnerships with other scientists. Artists, like scientists, are great observers. However, they raise questions in different ways. They have different forms of communication. They provide a kind of access to some of the questions surrounding what science explores.”
The Watershed project, she said, really has its roots in a conversation between artists and the Academy’s environmental scientists.
At a meeting, Lynn Perez, director of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative for the academy’s Patrick Center, mentioned that the academy building sits in a microshed of the larger watershed, McDougall recalled.
“It was kind of an epiphany for the artists to realize that right in the neighborhood where we are, you can see that … the water goes from here to the Schuylkill and there’s this creek buried underground called the Minnow Run, ‘ McDougall said. “And so, based on their own revelation, they decided to try and translate that into a public experience. How do you experience the turning point in your everyday life and directly in your neighborhood?”
The “Art Experience Walk” (formally titled How to get to the river) was born. It’s a 1.5 mile hike down Cherry Street to the river starting at the funnel/cistern/sousaphone bell tower (dubbed attunement, and designed by theatrical designer David Gordon and manufactured by sculptor Jordan Griska).
The walk meanders to the Schuylkill and ends with Within the watershed, a Riverside arbor created by New Paradise but powered by a sound installation created by artists Liz Phillips and Annea Lockwood, who also created the sound installation currently housed in the Academy’s Dietrich Gallery.
Whit MacLaughlin, the driving force behind New Paradise, said that New Paradise was involved in the development of most of Watershed Moment with the goal of “really getting the building and the public talking about important issues that can be expressed as both science and art.”
Why the extensive use of sound installations?
“The sounds really are the voice of the watershed,” he said. But how to phrase that for the museum proved elusive — until Perez mentioned that Cherry Street itself was “a microshed.”
“We ran out of the building and went after it and started investigating Cherry Street from 19th Street to 20th Street and then down to the river,” MacLaughlin said. He recalls thinking, “Oh my god, this is both an urban divide and a sculpture.”
“So we started looking at it as both a scientific presence and a geophysical presence and a kind of artwork,” he said. “Sound kind of sneaked up to think about it. … We hope to deliver a full-bodied experience of the watershed and the sound – it just popped up on our doorstep as one of the key means by which we can do that. But there are many visual components.”
It is this mindset that brought McDougall to the world of the Academy, with its dioramas and collections of insects and skeletons.
Yes, dinosaurs will stay, Cooper said. They make up a large part of the attractiveness of the academy.
But there’s definitely a new approach to thinking about what the academy can be and what it is, he said.
“Scientists at the Patrick Center may think of watersheds in many different ways,” McDougall said. “But the artists find a way to communicate and share that and get people into a playful, lyrical experience of it.”
“Artists have so many different gifts that they can bring in the questions that science is based on, and they have complementary methods,” she said. “I am interested in how the methods of science can be intertwined with the methods of the arts, humanities and even the history of science to enrich our experience of the world around us.”