Date of Lecture: 1990-02-09
Rosamond Purcell’s work documenting specimens drawn from natural history collections questions the longstanding typology of scientific (and occasionally pseudo-scientific) knowledge. Her photographs capture the museological presentation of artifacts and examine the underlying desires that compel the categorization of both the ‘normal’ and the marginal. Images of two-headed animals, babies in jars or transparent cross-sections of a human face possess the ability to startle the contemporary viewer even though the objects themselves may be centuries old.
Purcell frequently collaborates with paleontologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould, with whom she shares a column in the magazine, The Sciences. Her photographs have accompanied publications addressing museum collections and the natural sciences, such as Treasures and Oddities from the Collections of Peter the Great to Agassiz (1992), Finders Keepers (1993), Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals (1999) and Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet (2000).
In addition to her photographic work, Purcell has also developed museum installations for institutions such as the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, the Getty Center in Santa Monica, and the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters (1997) is the first book in which Purcell provides both the text and photographs and is based upon the exhibit she curated for the Getty in 1994. The work assesses the history of monstrosity and the moral and existential dilemmas that accompany the collecting and classifying of the unorthodox.
Purcell’s work is represented in major collections throughout North America and has been exhibited at venues such as the New York Academy of Sciences, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Field Museum in Chicago and the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.