A Luminous Legacy
By Frank Ward
Of the many treasures under Amherst College’s charge, the great collection of natural history specimens initiated by Edward Hitchcock in 1835 remains the most visually exciting. Having spent decades hidden in plain sight in the Pratt Geology Building on the Main Quadrangle, this previously musty collection of natural wonders is getting a new, dramatic setting equal to the importance and beauty of its objects.
Over the past year or so, while the Pratt Museum was closed for packing and moving, I dedicated myself to making an idiosyncratic, and rather random, portrait of many of the objects in Amherst College’s natural history collection. I took great pleasure in visiting the Pratt with my camera. The faculty and staff of the Pratt knew what was important, but I knew what I liked. As an artist among scientists, I simply photographed what attracted me.
I spent hours with the moa, the mammoth and mastodon to make pictures that reflected the skeletons’ towering presence. With the museum’s overhead lighting extinguished, the radiance from the few windows brought a glow to the deteriorating interior spaces. My exposures were often several minutes long. In the main exhibition hall, during the exposures, I carefully walked behind the dire wolf, waving a large blue velvet sheet to separate the skeleton from the other mammals in the background.
In the Track Room, I waited in the dark with the footprints and other fossils. As my eyes adjusted, the illumination from two small windows infused the dinosaur tracks and traces. The dark room of prehistory took on the aura of an ancient temple or cave. I then opened the shutter for several minutes in an attempt to absorb into my camera what I was experiencing.
My hours spent in the museum were a pilgrimage through time. I photographed the objects of Edward Hitchcock’s luminous legacy, starting with the trilobite fossils, through dinosaur footprints and continuing with modern skeletons of a platypus and armadillo. Around me, the meticulous restoration and reevaluation of this venerable collection was accelerating. I could no longer sit in the dark making long exposures celebrating nature’s radiant past. These fabulous specimens are now destined for a new era, and I have had the good fortune of the photographer whose camera has stopped time. These photographs are a tribute to the Pratt Museum of Natural History and its role in Edward Hitchcock’s stony bird bequest.