Photographer Ardine Nelson finds colorful relationships among specimens from OSU's Museum of Biodiversity

Two years ago, Ardine Nelson, professor emeritus at Ohio State’s Department of Art, went to an open house at the university’s Museum of Biodiversity. All types of insects and creatures were on display, preserved in drawers and bottles. 

It was a bit macabre — a room full of dead stuff. But she was drawn to it. “Usually, it's like, 'Yuck!'” Nelson said. “But these aren't yucky dead things.”

When she asked about photographing specimens from the collection, she got a firm no. Over time, though, Nelson continued to speak with the museum’s curators, and she showed them the photography work she’d done in the past, which documented everything from gardens in Dresden, Germany, to empty stores in the old City Center Mall. “I've always been interested in landscape, urban landscape, land usage, historic sites,” Nelson said. “Photography is this huge field that can do so many things.”

Eventually, she established trust with the Museum of Biodiversity curators, and they let her spend time in the archives, opening drawers full of birds and butterflies and jars of preserved turtles, salamanders and fish. The collection is immense; the insect portion alone contains more than 3.5 million specimens. 

As much as Nelson was taken with the colors and tones, not to mention the historical nature of the specimens (some species, like the ivory billed woodpecker, are now extinct, and some were tagged in the 1840s), she was intrigued by the perceived relationships she noticed between the once-living things laying side by side in the drawers. 

“Look at the way that guy is rubbing up against that guy,” she said, pointing to a photo of birds in a drawer hanging on the wall in Ohio State’s Hopkins Hall Gallery, where her work will be on view as part of “From the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity + Transitory States” through Friday, Oct. 4, with an opening reception at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 22. 

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In one photo, which is presented in the exact dimension of the drawer — 24-by-36 inches — a row of blue jays lie prostrate on their backs, obscuring the bright coloration. But one bird is on its side above the rest, bucking the trend and seemingly scoffing at his overly modest drawer mates. 

“I just love the face on this turtle,” Nelson said, noting the way the creature seems to be mugging for the camera. Elsewhere, a jar of clown triggerfish — displayed on a pedestal in the middle of the gallery rather than in a photograph on the wall — seem to have happy faces, Nelson said, while a jar containing a venomous stonefish looks appropriately menacing.

Nelson isn’t concerned with visitors matching the scientific names and descriptions of every creature and plant to the photos on the wall. “It’s about the visual,” she said, and she hopes this exhibit is only the beginning of her time spent photographing the often-hidden collection. “There’s more to be done.”