Researching AUM: Naomi Slipp shows how art helped 19th-century science

Dr. Naomi Slipp in her AUM office in front of a banner featuring the art of John James Audubon used at a 2015 exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

As an assistant professor of art history in the Auburn University at Montgomery Department of Fine Arts, Dr. Naomi H. Slipp’s research involves studying the intersection of the arts and sciences during the 19th-century.

It was an important period in the evolution of science where scientific disciplines were not only rapidly expanding, but diverging to become more distinct. Artists were employed to help accurately record and explain the research and teaching of science.

“Every modern branch of the sciences that emerged in the 19th-century relied on visualization in some way,” said Slipp. “It was needed to convey information specific to that discipline to other scientists, students, and the public – teaching charts, systems of data visualization, three-dimensional paper mâché models, book illustrations, architecture, micrography, or photography, to name a few.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in the developing field of medicine.

“Doctors utilized artists to picture the interior terrain of the human body for pedagogical purposes and to support the burgeoning profession,” explained Slipp. “This period really transformed people's ideas about health, disease, medicine, and their own bodies.”

Her current book project, "The Art of the Body: Medicine and Anatomy in American Culture, 1800-1880," explores these collaborations between artists and medical professionals.

“I love that my research enables me to illustrate that historical transformation by introducing a series of case studies of different objects that can tell that story.”

Another new project, "Casting the Net: Canadian-American Fisheries in Gilded Age Art and Culture," examines Gilded Age American and Canadian art, visual and material culture, the rise of aquariums, and the display of fish and fishing materials at the World’s Fairs.

“This project highlights the connections between these works, institutions, and exhibitions, and rampant political tension over international Atlantic maritime borders, period anxieties regarding marine species, population management and natural abundance, and the birth and professionalization of fisheries science,” said Slipp, who emphasizes that the history of collaboration between the arts and sciences proves that the disciplines can help each other thrive.

“I hope my research demonstrates that they are often are much more interconnected and interdependent than people realize.”

Prior to AUM, Slipp held museum positions at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Harvard Art Museums. Currently, she also serves as Director of AUM's Goodwyn Gallery.

“I organize visiting artist exhibitions, facilitate faculty and graduating senior shows, and curate temporary exhibitions,” she said. “Students get hands-on experience planning and researching an exhibition, writing labels and gallery text, and hanging and deinstalling an exhibit.”

As a specialist in 19th-century American culture and history, Slipp says her time in Montgomery has transformed how she thinks about, teaches, and talks about her discipline.

“I also see the challenges we face today as a nation as bound up with those histories,” she says. “Many of my conversations in the classroom seek to utilize such histories in order to tap into the more crucial political, social, and cultural issues that are relevant to students' lived experiences today. And that seems pretty valuable to me.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.org).