University Archives puts Sewanee’s scientific history Under the Microscope

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The new exhibition at the University Archives: Under the Microscope: An Exploration of Sewanee’s Scientific Past. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

By Nathaniel Klein
Contributing Writer

Across the room, a snake lays sprawled across a sepia-stained poster, its insides splayed bare in a cross-section examining its skeleton, cardiovascular system, and digestive tract, its forked tongue lolling menacingly out of its unhinged jaw. This two-dimensional specimen is one of the articles currently on exhibit in the University Archives as part of the exhibition Under the Microscope: An Exploration of Sewanee’s Scientific Past.

The exhibit contains a variety of diagrams, dissection models, photographs, and special artifacts from scientific inquiry at Sewanee over the years. Arising from an Introduction to Museum Studies class, the exhibition was organized and arranged by Sewanee students.

Most of the items in the exhibit were already in the Archives, and others were found in places around Sewanee: a bag of jaguar bones gathered by Vice-Chancellor Edward McCrady in the 1940s was discovered in Snowden, and the large telescope depicted in the sepia photograph of Dr. Samuel Barton is still in operation.

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The new exhibition at the University Archives: Under the Microscope: An Exploration of Sewanee’s Scientific Past. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

There are some truly fascinating finds in the exhibition, and they are remarkably well-preserved, such as the dissection model of a chicken with the colors of the blood vessels and internal organs dulled with age. Yet this tint gives the model an almost prehistoric quality to the items. Finding these dissection models is especially remarkable given that, although the company which manufactured them still exists, they have no such record of the model’s existence.

“A, they were used in classes, and B, there’s a certain level of craftsmanship to it,” said Matthew Reynolds, assistant director of the University Archives and Special Collections. “It’s more than just a morbid object, what it is is a work of art with an educational value.”

Some of the exhibition’s articles are indeed quite morbid, such as a black-and-white photograph from the University’s former medical school showing a man sitting calmly amongst a pile of flayed cadavers. There are also charmingly comic elements; a 1966 brochure from the forestry department shows a man sitting at a large wooden desk in the middle of the forest, thoughtfully perusing a book.

Under the Microscope offers Sewanee a much needed moment of self-reflection: by examining the exploits of scientists and students of science at Sewanee, we can see the progression of our university through snapshots of our scientific inquiries. Some of them are amusing, some are distressing, and all contain lessons the community would be wise not to forget.

Under the Microscope opened in the University Archives on September 21 and runs until January 22.