February 11 marks the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, a day that recognizes the critical role women and girls play in science and technology communities. As our way of honouring the amazing contributions women have made to Alberta’s scientific community, we’d like to introduce you to three extraordinary women from the Royal Alberta Museum who uses both science and art to tell the story of Alberta’s rich history.
Pottery and the Natural World
Britta Jensen is the Assistant Curator for Quaternary Environments at the Royal Alberta Museum. As a researcher who studies Alberta’s geological and environmental history by collecting “leftovers from plants” buried in the soil, Britta has a deep love and understanding of our province’s landscape. She channels this interest, combined with her love of history, to empower her artistic creativity.
“I love looking at old academic journal articles from the 1800s or turn of the (20th) century,” Britta says. “The scientists of the day spent a lot of time observing nature and they had to hand-draw all their observations as there no computers to draft the data. I carry on the tradition, hand drawing my charts and graphs to include in my scientific articles.”
Britta credits her love of the outdoors and her early academic work as an inspiration for her artwork and pottery. “My work is inspired by my love of the natural world,” she says. “After my first few courses in geology, I began to see the land differently, which helped transform my understanding of the environment we live in.”
Alwynne Beaudoin, Head Curator of Earth Sciences and Curator of Quaternary Environments, sees a strong connection between the arts and science. “A good scientist should have a creative and artistic side. Both artists and scientists require strong powers of observation that not only enables them to see but also gives them the skills to interpret what they are seeing in a way that others can understand.”
She uses the arts as a way to share her scientific research with a general audience but also as a way to express her own creativity. Using the power of communications in the tradition of oral storytellers, Alwynne delivers presentations through “word portraits”, vividly describing a scene from the past to stir the imaginations of her listeners. Like any good theatre actor, she is engaging her audience’s senses in a different way, to get them to understand that the concerns of people living more than 7,000 years ago weren’t all that different from today.
“There is a great deal of scope for collaboration between the arts and sciences,” Alwynne says. “Working in interdisciplinary subjects with different people is stimulating and beneficial to everyone.”
The “word portrait” was also made into art through the Heritage Art Series, a collaboration between the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta and the Royal Alberta Museum. Check it out over at our sister-blog, RetroActive.
Visitor Engagement through Art
Nancy Schulz knows this first-hand. As the Family Program Coordinator at the Royal Alberta Museum, part of her responsibilities is to help Britta and Alwynne transform their scientific work into exhibits and engaging programs for visitors to the museum. To her, “Art and sciences are quite intertwined even though people put them at opposite ends of the spectrum.”
Nancy’s background is in the Fine Arts and she puts that experience to good use as she helps design the new exhibits that will go into the new museum.
“Art and science are so connected—science asks the questions and seeks the answers; art expresses what we know and what we think we understand,” Nancy says. “But art can also be a catalyst, a new way of thinking that can help inspire questions worth exploring.”
Her artistic background is a powerful asset in creating fun and engaging programs that help translate the scientific data of the subject matter experts into a memorable visitor experience. Nancy recalled the story of a little boy who participated in one of the Royal Alberta Museum’s interactive programs about weaving, demonstrating a heritage loom and a collection of woven objects. “The next time that little boy came to the museum, he was proudly wearing a scarf he had made himself! This is such a great example of how he learned a skill from the past, internalized the experience and made it a part of his own life.”
For Nancy, the sciences also have a powerful impact on her own creativity, utilizing old medical texts to inspire her personal art. “As someone who works with science but uses art to inform—to do these drawings successfully, it’s important that I understand what it is that I’m trying to share with the audience.
Advice to Young Scientists
Britta, Alwynne and Nancy all agree—the sciences and the arts complement one another. When asked to provide one bit of advice to girls and young women thinking of pursuing scientific careers, they each had this to say:
“Don’t be intimidated by math and the basic sciences – try thinking of the subjects in a different way. If you are interested, there is some way you can achieve it. Don’t define your limitations at an early age but do work hard to prove yourself and try different subjects until you find the right fit.” – Britta Jensen
“The opportunities for girls in science are better now than they ever have been. It is much more welcoming now with greater recognition. It is important to bring your whole self and the diversity of your skill sets to the table. Don’t be afraid to jump right in – technical skills can be learned but you must bring curiosity, imagination and a willingness to work hard to achieve your goals.” – Alwynne Beaudoin
“Science deals with data and numbers but we still have to ask what it does for our lives. Art enables us to bring down the walls, to have fun, enabling people to engage with the scientific information in an enjoyable way. Don’t be shy about trying and exploring.” – Nancy Schulz
Be sure to follow the Royal Alberta Museum on social media for ongoing updates as the museum prepares for its move to downtown Edmonton.