documenting nature, nature study, Taxidermy

The RISD Nature Lab +The Importance of Collections

11.06.09 | 12 Comments

If you enjoy natural history and haven’t yet seen Etsy’s visit to RISD’s Nature Lab, I highly recommend a peek; apparently we weren’t the only ones to think it special!

Alis and I met there as freshmen and spent (well, I can say that I spent) more than half my time in the lab after dark, poring over specimens. I sketched at the same long tables you see in the video in a quiet trance until close. It was like a church of curiosity, a place whose doors were (almost) always open to focus and quiet the mind.

The Nature Lab was built in Dan Beard’s day and it was conceived as a place within RISD for students to gain a close appreciation of the natural world without leaving campus (I mean, when does a student have the time?!). It is not a museum per se, but it is, especially when one considers that it was built within an art school. But unlike major scientific collections, RISD has maintained a basic catalogue that groups all of the thousands of specimens merely by order of the five kingdoms under which each item belongs. They figure that if the student desires further investigation of the specimens, she can study independently over the hill at Brown and, if that doesn’t suffice, transfer to a university where she can pursue a degree in biology (which is what I did).

A nature lab, this nature lab, is that inspiring.

So if you take in to account all the effort that goes into ‘Stocking a Marine Aquarium,’ or ‘Keeping Aquatic Plants in the House or Flower-Garden’ (both projects in The American Boy’s Handy Book) then you may be surprised by an effect equal in measure in the long run: a more intimate, educated understanding of the natural world in which we live, and quite possibly a lifelong desire to become an expert in the field. It can teach us to see better. It can ignite a passion in us that inspires others to be more curious about natural history, too.

Not to mention it’s just way fun to hoard stuff! That’s what collecting is all about.

Be it a nature table (which is how we roll) and its seasonal decorations or a full-on specimen archive or a nature journal in which you’ve drawn all the interesting things you’ve encountered in your time out of doors, there is a satisfaction in having this tactile database of organisms (living or nonliving, organic or inorganic). Here is a sampling of nature collections that we and our friends have made:

nature collections our friends have made

Precious or not, a collection is meant to be handled and explored; this is why the nature table is such a favorite for young children, being a small seasonal tabletop collection of stuff that finds its way into little fists and pockets:


Older children interested in collecting will painstakingly tuck treasures into small divided boxes for hours on end. And then some, like my children, will keep a basket loaded with treasures of all types on the floor in the living room as they do with Legos, ready to stage a scenic event and use them as props and characters.

I think humans have an affinity for the organic, and you can see from Da Vinci to Thoreau (to the child on the floor creating a labyrinth out of broken seashells for his Lego Indiana Jones) that nature has a tremendous capacity to illuminate the mind.

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