Collections and Contingency is an exhibition of sculpture and microscopic photography by Deborah Gardner, placed in and around the fascinating artefacts and specimens within the store room of Leeds Discovery Centre.  This project is part of a new scheme to promote novel collaborations between Leeds Museums and Galleries and the Cultural Institute at the University of Leeds and is supported by Leeds Museums and Galleries/Cultural Institute Cross Disciplinary Innovation Fund.

I proposed to explore how contemporary art, made in response to a natural science collection can prompt new understanding and insights into the structure, matter and growth patterns of certain specimens.  Working with curator Rebecca Machin, I decided to focus my attention on the huge collection of botanical and zoological slide preparations held within dozens of beautiful wooden slide cabinets.  The selection of slides range over decades, possibly spanning a hundred years, some highly ornate and decorated with solutions stained with many different colours.  Lack of specific data gathered at the time of their making means these slides are not useful for scientific research, yet the range speaks of a fascinating hidden history. Since these slides are rarely viewed and are difficult to show on public tours of the storage space, I decided to reveal the hidden treasures through my artwork.

Using light microscopy at Leeds University with the help of Dr Muhammed Tausif, I printed large digital exposures of examples such as pollen, seeds, bark, leaves and fungi or oyster embryos, crystallised silver and birds’ beaks.  Some of the specimens were magnified up to a 0.1 of a millimetre revealing glorious patterns, shapes and colours.  These prints were then placed alongside a series of small sculptures made specifically by me for the exhibition.

Many of the sculptures responded to items within the storage racks, such as crystals, corals, fossils and rocks.  The art works are placed at points where they indicate what may be contained within more enclosed storage, but also make for surreal and interesting interactions with other elements of the collections. One sculpture, for example, sits on a Victorian plant stand, another wire sculpture inspired by a magnified eucalyptus leaf hangs from a pole holding a parrot, sculptures responding to seeds and coral stand next to the large fish display and another coral inspired work sits between highly decorated vases, whilst elsewhere a taxidermy bear holds a microscopic image in its paws.

Contemporary art interventions with historical collections and natural specimens need not explain or describe what these collected items are, but rather work with them to nudge us to think further of how they were formed, their various characteristics and how closely they relate to artistic making and materials.


By Deborah Gardner, Lecturer at the School of Design, University of Leeds

We run free tours of our artefact store every Thursday at 11am and 2pm. Find out more about Leeds Discovery Centre here.