It’s a scene both thrilling and terrifying: in the quiet darkness of the ocean, two massive, black fish grin as they encircle a submarine-like, spherical chamber that has no doubt descended great depths. The dramatic encounter was skillfully painted in 1932 by artist Else Bostelmann, and it was apparently far from fiction, as it was witnessed that year by American naturalist William Beebe as he was crammed inside that metal pod at a depth of 2,100 feet in the waters of Bermuda.
Beebe dubbed the slick creatures Bathysphaera intacta — a nod to his underwater sanctuary, the revolutionary Bathysphere. Although they were never seen again, his track record provides reason for us to trust he did see something truly jaw-dropping that day. The Bronx Zoo’s first curator of ornithology, Beebe led the Department of Tropical Research (DTR), a scientific team from the New York Zoological Society (today, the Wildlife Conservation Society), on over 65 expeditions to study tropical rainforests and marine ecosystems around the world. Collaborating with a handful of artists like Bostelmann, DTR’s researchers diligently recorded flora and foliage in their natural environments. They published their findings in research papers, even introducing dozens of new species to the scientific community. But they also grabbed the attention of everyday citizens through captivating lectures, radio interviews, best-selling books, and magazine articles in publications like National Geographic and Popular Science. Between 1916 and 1962, the team made over 2,000 field drawings, 60 of which are on view for the first time ever at The Drawing Center.
These comprise the main display of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, a heavily researched exhibition curated by historian and anthropologist Katherine McLeod, Wildlife Conservation Society archivist Madeleine Thompson, and artist Mark Dion. Almost all are attributed to their artists — all of whom had separate artistic practices outside of the DTR — and sharp eyes may note that the DTR employed many women. Many of the team’s scientists, too, were women, which undermined their work in the eyes of some from the overwhelmingly male scientific community.
Bostelmann created some of the most arresting depictions of marine life, from wriggling, blue-and-orange nudibranches to bloated black swallowers whose bellies reveal their latest meals. While in Kartabo, then part of British Guiana, Isabel Cooper illustrated more cuddly creatures such as a long-tongued marmoset and a docile-looking, three-toed sloth. In the tropics of Venezuela, George Swanson captured nature’s smallest attractions: bugs feasting on a pink leaf; the technicolor eyeballs of flies; the leg of a water strider, drawn in profile so its hairs spread out like the folds of a Japanese fan.
Their drawings achieved what photography then, with its technical limitations, could not. These studies froze any fast-moving creatures, portraying them with every detail observable to the human eye. The DTR’s artists clearly illustrated with a scientific mind, as they showed specimens from various perspectives to fully capture their form or indicate how they move; some illustrations feature multiple iterations of a single specimen but rendered with different opacities, colors, or textures. At times, we’re shown what wondrous innards lie beneath skin, revealing physiological systems typically unseen.
The DTR’s mission was to observe organisms in their natural habitats and understand how they all related to one another within an ecosystem, so its artists often sketched outdoors. Dreamlike, archival footage of the DTR’s expeditions, playing in The Drawing Center’s backroom, features a particularly memorable glimpse of one researcher drawing underwater on a zinc tablet, wearing a diving helmet. But at times, the DTR also captured specimens in jars, toting them back to their field stations to illustrate at desks.
The exhibition features two life-size, recreations of these field stations, installed by Dion, based on his research of photographic archives. One brings to life a jungle station and the other, an oceanographic work space. The rooms are cluttered but tidy, with surfaces covered in scientific and artistic tools, offering a vivid snapshot of the scientists’ daily agenda and myriad duties in an unconventional lab setting. Across the room in display cases are real artifacts from their travels, from taxidermy to specimen jars; some drawers open, allowing you to examine maps, letters, pages of Beebe’s journals, and other ephemera.
There’s also a wall covered in framed, black-and-white photographs. These capture members of the DTR at work but also at play, throwing parties, dressing in costumes, and indulging in alcohol. Whether in Bermuda, Haiti, or Trinidad and Tobago, they were free to act as they wished, and enjoyed pleasures and privileges that the local communities around their field stations often did not. The ugly reality is that DTR set up its first field station in British Guiana, and its research relied heavily on the established systems of colonial control. The team hired locals as guides, cooks, and even specimen preparators, and they viewed them as no more than laborers. There’s a small clue to the researchers’ disregard for those who resided on these lands long before their arrival, found in a map by artist Helen Damrosch Tee-Van. The drawing depicts an imagined version of Bermudas’ Nonsuch Island: among Tee-Van’s illustrations of animals, nature, and the DTR members going on their daily agendas are racist caricatures of three individuals.
The DTR gave no credit to the individuals who helped them, whether by sharing knowledge of the land or providing laborious services. Any knowledge garnered from indigenous communities was simply stolen and incorporated into their publications, which in turn played a role in legitimizing colonial authority and directives.
As McLeod succinctly writes in the exhibition catalogue, “Maintenance of the Dutch and the British colonies depended in part on obtaining botanical and geological expertise over the natural resources in the region in order to apply this knowledge to agricultural and mining endeavors that fed their economic goals.”
It’s important to note that Beebe, who personally profited from this exploitation through the 21 books he wrote about his travels, also had connections to wealthy companies with business interests in South America who sponsored DTR’s field stations. An interview in the catalogue between McLeod and Guyana-born historian Richard Drayton delves further into the complicated ties between the DTR’s conservation efforts and political and economic powers of the time.
After Beebe died in 1962, the DTR was incorporated into the New York Zoological Society’s Institute for Research in Animal Behavior. The group’s research has proved invaluable, and scientists in the last few decades have built upon what they saw and recorded. Their work also presents important issues to consider today when carrying out conservation work in a postcolonial world, where scientists (and artists) are often still complicit in systems of oppression.
Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions continues at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster St, SoHo, Manhattan) through July 16.