If you search within Royal BC Museum natural history collections, and specifically the scientific illustrations drawn from the research surrounding those collections, you may be surprised to find a small sample of art. While the craftsmanship of scientific illustration should be, by definition, technical, precise and objective, I was happily surprised to find some beautiful examples of what I perceive as a more subjective approach executed by Dr. Josephine F. L. Hart and ultimately published as colour plates in her Royal BC Museum handbook (field guide) Crabs and their Relatives of British Columbia (RBCM, 1982).
Dr. Josephine F.L. Hart’s illustrated publication is, on a practical level, a thorough documentation of her and her colleagues’ meticulous and lifelong research into “reptant decapod crustacea”. It is also very typical of the over 50 natural history handbooks produced by researchers and curators that make up an important part of the history of museum publishing (Royal BC Museum first published in 1891). However, for some reason Dr. Hart’s plates in this guide have always stood apart from the others I have seen. I had to pause and wonder why that was.
One thing that is apparent in Dr. Hart’s watercolours is the beauty which she must have beheld, and then pushed through her brushes. In some way her choices of colour and technique seem more Impressionistic than scientific. Subjective more than objective. These are the choices that bring life to her work and transcend craft into the realm of art. There is a subtle abstract quality to the work that effectively captures (some of) the life of the subject. And these subjective details she adds are what seem to capture the elusive and subtle quality of “life” not typically found in scientific illustration. It is possible that these subjective details tell the unconscious mind of the viewer that this subject is either alive or dead. In the case of Dr. Hart’s wonderful paintings, when I look at them now, they are most definitely alive.