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The Story Behind Those Smithsonian Collection Photos

The National Museum of Natural History, a part of the Smithsonian Institution, has a huge exhibit space in Washington, DC. However, what’s on display is only about 1% of what they have. The rest is in storage, carefully curated, and sometimes rotated into display. Over a period of twenty years, Smithsonian photographer Chip Clark documented this backstage collection in photographs. The museum’s assistant director Carol Butler tells us about the stunning images.  

There’s one image of the bird collection. And what I remember [Clark] told me was that it took about eight hours to set up that shot. The collections are stored taxonomically according to the tree of life. But to get beautiful colors and good artistic composition, they had to move some drawers to different positions.

It took an artistic eye, a lot of patience, and probably a certain amount of flexibility to shimmy under drawers or to move sideways past pulled-out drawers. It also took an understanding of what science needed to be expressed through the photographs.

But that’s just the story of one picture. Read more about Clark and the museum’s collections, and see a gallery of his images at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution)


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