Like a liberal arts education, the moon intrigues the scientific spirit and the artistic spirit in all of us. We asked the director and senior curator of the College’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art to talk about this perfect symbol of the “interdisciplinarity” of all knowledge and the inspiration behind one of the Halsey Institute’s latest exhibitions.
by Mark Sloan
Midway through my undergraduate years at the University of Richmond, I wanted to be an oceanographer, intoxicated by the bow-wave of Jacques Cousteau, my childhood idol. The deeper I got into the science courses required for a biology major, though, the more I realized I was, er … out of my depth. One particular advantage of attending a liberal arts institution, such as the University of Richmond – or the College of Charleston – is that one has the freedom to choose from a
rich buffet of intellectual possibilities. I ended up with a self-styled major in interdisciplinary studies, encouraged and supported by faculty across the campus. I will never forget that amazing opportunity.
Since graduation, I have been fascinated by the inter-disciplinarity of all knowledge. Sure, here at the College we have whole departments devoted to single disciplines – psychology, mathematics, economics and many others – but, in fact, it is the sum of them all that composes the great chain of human thought. Courses within these disciplines are often taught using the rubric of a singular field, each with its own specialized (and often idiosyncratic) jargon. The challenge for the motivated liberal arts student is to deduce the whole after studying the parts – or, at least, to develop an appreciation of the complexity of human endeavor.
One of my stock responses to parents who question the value of a liberal arts education is to say that we are in the business of teaching students enough to know what they do not know. For me, it is as important to know the limits of our knowledge as it is to gain mastery in one’s particular field of “expertise.” Since my arrival at the College in 1994, I have made the effort to reach out to a variety of departments and individuals on campus to explore ways that we might use the exhibitions within the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art as a focal point for reintegrating knowledge and demonstrate tangibly the interconnectedness of all disciplines.
For instance, when we did an exhibition of art by and about prisoners in the United States, I engaged Heath Hoffman from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and then director of the minor in crime, law and society. Hoffman was able to use the exhibition as an extension of the classroom for his students, as well as an outreach opportunity for area prisoners and prison personnel. We worked together to fashion an education component to the exhibition that included film, lectures, a panel discussion and a poetry reading.
Another prime example was an exhibition that was guest- curated by political geographer Mark Long. Et in Arcadia ego featured the work of acclaimed British photographer Simon Norfolk, who had been focusing on the “landscape of war.” Long selected works from Norfolk’s archive that depicted manifestations of battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, environments created by refugees and cities torn apart by decades-long civil wars around the globe. This exhibition and its attendant educational programming (including bringing the artist in for a memorable political science convocation lecture) drew our attention to the legacies of war throughout history, as seen through the physical landscapes left behind.
In our quest to demonstrate the primacy of interdisciplinary thought, we have attempted to position the Halsey Institute as a hub for hybrid explorations. We have worked with studio artists and art historians, education specialists, humanities scholars and faculty in Jewish studies, women’s and gender studies, Asian studies, African studies, biologists and, most recently, a planetary geologist.
Bringing together art and science, that project was From the Moon: Mapping & Exploration.* This exhibition took place in the School of Sciences and Mathematics from November through March. It was co-curated with my longtime collaborator Roger Manley, director of the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at North Carolina State University. Cass Runyon, professor of planetary geology here at the College, was our lunar science adviser. From the Moon addressed our visual perceptions of the moon, from Earth and from space, and demonstrated how advances in optical technologies have increased our understanding over time.
This exhibition explored our relationship to the moon through the lens of the sciences. We wanted to chronicle this epic journey from Galileo’s first observations to today’s most powerful telescopes. The exhibition included a broad range of man’s attempts at mapping and understanding lunar history, including a spectacular historical collection of lunar maps, charts and atlases donated to the College’s Special Collections by Jim Phillips ’73. Another key component was NASA’s documentation of the Apollo lunar landings, as well as current research and missions. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a moon rock collected during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971.
In the summer of 2011, Professor Runyon and I went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to scour its archives and collections for materials to include in the exhibition. Because Runyon has worked at the JSC and on various NASA projects for many years, we were given extraordinary access to some of this nation’s lunar treasures. We met with various specialists there, including Joseph Kosmo (yes, his real name), the man who designed the pressurized space suit. We took a tour of his laboratory and the facility in which the space suits are made by hand. We also toured the cosmic dust laboratory and the lunar sample processing lab/storage vault. This trip certainly brought out my inner geek.
Runyon and her team developed a comprehensive education program, which included lectures, guided tours for hundreds of K–12 students and hands-on demonstrations about spectroscopy and impact cratering. The exhibition was geared to the general public, but there was a strong emphasis on both the science of exploration and the aesthetic dimension of lunar research.
This exhibition will be followed in the fall of 2013 by a companion project that examines humankind’s complex relationship with the moon through the lens of the arts and humanities: From the Moon: Myth & Mystery.
– In addition to his duties as both director and senior curator of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Mark Sloan is also an accomplished artist and author (or co-author) of 12 books. In 2004, he was co-author and photographer of The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. His 2002 book, Wild, Weird, and Wonderful: The American Circus 1901–1927, as seen by F.W. Glasier, Photographer, is credited as being one of the inspirations for novelist Sara Gruen’s New York Times best-seller Water for Elephants.
*Funding for this project was provided by NASA, Moon Mineralogy Mapper and the NASA Lunar Science Institute, and was produced in partnership with the Northeast Planetary Data Center at Brown University and the Lunar Planetary Institute. On-campus partners included the School of the Arts, Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library and the School of Sciences and Mathematics.