Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney
Women in geoscience today can be struck by the paucity of their predecessors in the scientific record. This month, an exhibition helps to redress the balance: portraits celebrating 200 years of pioneering work by women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists, on display at London’s Geological Society library.
Raising Horizons — created by photographer Leonora Saunders and science outreach group TrowelBlazers — celebrates 14 women scientists, from fossil-hunter Mary Anning (1799-1847) to underwater archaeologist Honor Frost (1917-2010). The twist is that the portraits are photographs in which present-day scientific counterparts enact these historical luminaries. Thus Lorna Steel, senior curator in earth sciences at London’s Natural History Museum, is dressed as Anning out collecting with her dog Tray, and maritime archaeologist Rachel Bynoe is shown as Frost emerging dripping after a ‘wreck dive’ in the Mediterranean.
Saunders, known for her work on gender and equality, has shot these portrayals of glass-ceiling smashers and adventurous field scientists in rich hues and with deep-green backdrops. They evoke oil paintings — an honour accorded to few of these formidable professionals during their lifetimes.
Most are portrayed at work. Geologist Catherine Raisin (1855-1945), modelled by pioneering geoconservationist Cynthia Burek, scrutinises a geological map. Archaeologist Shahina Farid — who was field director at Turkey’s Neolithic site Çatalhöyük for 17 years — appears as renowned archaeologist of Neolithic culture Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978), pausing for breath at the excavation of Great Zimbabwe in the 1930s.
With Saunders, the four TrowelBlazers scientists — archaeologists Suzanne Pilaar Birch and Rebecca Wragg Sykes, bioarchaeologist Brenna Hassett and palaeobiologist Victoria Herridge — dug into archives for each portrayal. Period artefacts, such as the 1930s field camera Farid is holding, were used in some of the photos. The period class system is also on show. Geologist Charlotte Murchison (1788-1869), portrayed by earth scientist Natasha Stephen, wears a glamorous evening gown; Murchison’s contemporary, the working-class Anning, a simple dress and clogs.
“There are so many other people I could have chosen,” says Wragg Sykes, who selected subjects from almost 150 biographies accumulated by Trowelblazers. Although many of the women featured in the press, their names rarely made it into scientific publications, says Amara Thornton, the social historian of archaeology who portrays Margaret Murray (1863-1963), Britain’s first female archaeology lecturer.
A highlight is Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968), an archaeologist who led digs at the prehistoric Mount Carmel site in Palestine and discovered an important Neanderthal skull at Gibraltar in the 1920s. Archaeologist Nicky Milner captures Garrod in intense concentration, examining a stone tool.
The exhibition does a fine job of emphasising just how long women have made key advances in these arduous fields. Like the Bearded Lady Project — which also celebrates female earth scientists — Raising Horizons indicates that the Indiana Jones stereotype could be on the wane. And the success of the Academy Award-nominated film Hidden Figures – about African-American female mathematicians whose calculations were crucial to the space race – shows a public appetite for such stories.
The lives of many of Raising Horizons’ subjects are intertwined, as the women taught, mentored or worked alongside each other. A large part of Trowelblazers is about encouraging such networks today, says Wragg Sykes. Judging from the lively launch event – which, refreshingly, buzzed with children and babies, as well as women and men – they seem to be succeeding.
The scientists in these portraits are a diverse group representing generally white, wealthy historical predecessors. In terms of inspiring a new generation of trowel-wielding women, diversity in role models is essential, says Wragg Sykes. As the Trowelblazers put it, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it”.
Saunders says the photos were designed with the learned society setting in mind. Mounted high around the rail of the library, the intent is literally to ‘raise horizons’, slipping these scientists’ legacies back into positions in history they should already hold. But these images are so absorbing that I’d also hope to see them in larger formats when the exhibition tours Britain, and at eye level. That way young women contemplating the life scientific can ‘meet’ these inspiring researchers face to face.
Elizabeth Gibney is a reporter on physics for Nature based in London. She tweets at @LizzieGibney. Raising Horizons will run at The Geological Society, London, until 28 February. It will then set off on a UK tour, to include the University Women’s Club, London, the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival and the Women of the World festival in Chester.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.