From a stuffed two-headed calf and a five-legged Kermit the Frog to a puffer fish preserved in a jar and a warren of rabbits literally controlled by a carrot, Science Museum of Oklahoma is opening quite the cabinet of curiosities on Saturday.
Several of them, in fact.
The museum’s Satellite Galleries, typically a spot dedicated to exploring the intersections of science and art, also will showcase natural history, mythology, audio-visual technology, taxidermy and other marvels with two new exhibits, “Wunderkammer” and “Totemic Taxonomy.”
“It is a mouthful,” said Satellite Galleries Director Scott Henderson. “The shows work together … because we’re dealing with animals and collections.”
An opening reception for the unusual new exhibits is set for 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday and will include free admission to the museum.
Cabinets of wonder
Brandice Guerra is returning to Oklahoma to share her fascination with the “Wunderkammer,” which literally means “wonder room” or “wonder cabinet” in German. In the 17th century, members of the aristocracy would collect various exotic items from around the world — from animal skeletons and jarred specimens to antiquities and anatomical models — and display them in handsome cabinets.
“They’re precursors to modern-day museums. Before we had science museums, natural history museums, we had these collections,” Henderson said. “So I’m recreating those with Brandice Guerra’s artwork.”
The former director of studio art at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, Guerra specializes in small-scale but finely detailed paintings of animals, which Henderson has nestled in the midst of a veritable zoo of creatures preserved by skilled taxidermists or in alcohol-filled jars. An Illinois native, the painter said her interest in such cabinets of curiosities dates to childhood visits to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
“It’s kind of the perfect blending of my interest in art and my interest in science,” said Guerra, who now is an assistant professor of art at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif.
While Guerra has been painting in California, Henderson has been searching the Sooner State for the curiosities to fill the cabinets, from a cluster of fawn feet from an Oklahoma City University professor’s office to the stuffed two-headed calf Guerra vividly remembers from her initial tour of NWOSU. The various flora and fauna oddities are on loan from the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, University of Central Oklahoma Department of Biology and Natural History Museum, the Oklahoma State University Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, OCU Biology Department, Terry’s Taxidermy and private collector John Fluitt.
“I’ve always been fascinated with mythology and kind of the obscure, so I thought this was really fun to do. And it was so much fun going to all these universities and talking to all these professors,” Henderson said. “It’s amazing what they have collected in their offices.”
Like most artists, University of Oklahoma faculty members Cathleen Faubert and Pete Froslie share Guerra’s affinity for collecting unusual objects. Both assistant professors of art, technology and culture, the Norman artists collaborated on “Totemic Taxonomy,” the other new exhibit.
“Scott’s kind of using a kind of a (17th) and 18th/19th century vision of that cabinet of curiosities, and we’re kind of bringing that into the 21st century in terms of looking at collections, material culture, the access — especially in American society — to stuff,” Faubert said. “Then, how do these things fill our lives and how do we decide what’s precious?”
“Totemic” refers to totems, which are animals (and sometimes plants) that serve as emblems of identification or spiritual guides, while “Taxonomy” deals with ways of categorizing things.
“As we spend more time on the computer and Facebook, the same way we sort of strip our identities and make them very surface-level, the animals like the orca and the bunny, the way we see them now, we take qualities that we want and package them in a particular way,” Froslie said.
“If you take a Grizzly bear as a mascot, he’s highly aggressive and competitive on the way into a game, but he’s cuddly and cute on the way to a fundraiser. But nobody’s really identifying in a fan space with hibernation and hairiness and things that would traditionally belong to a totem animal.”
So, he and Faubert hooked up several toy rabbits to a microprocessor, a series of wires and a real carrot as a switch. When visitors press the carrot, the bunnies randomly and repetitively hop, fostering the sense they’re controlled by forces beyond their own understanding.
“You see bunnies everywhere; like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is an obvious example. ‘Harvey,’ ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ magic tricks where rabbits come out of hats. Anytime you see a bunny as a totemic animal, it’s always straddling this line where it’s in this sort of magical space. It’s making you think about what it means to exist,” Froslie said.
As for his five-limbed version of Kermit, he displayed the amphibian Muppet — known for his wisdom and charm, traditional totem traits of frogs — in a streamlined version of the cabinets in the “Wunderkammer” exhibit.
“You see frogs everywhere in folklore, and they’re still around in terms of ecological crisis. We see frogs falling from the skies, and we have frogs with fifth legs growing,” Froslie said.
“We’re trying to make a lot of work that’s sort of cute and fun on the surface, but there’s definitely social commentary underneath.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Brandice Guerra: Wunderkammer” and “Totemic Taxonomy”
When: Saturday through Sept. 15.
Where: Science Museum Oklahoma Satellite Galleries, 2100 NE 52.
Opening reception: 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday. Free admission.
Lecture: 6 p.m. Saturday with Brandice Guerra.
Information: 602-6664 or www.