Art or Science (2021–2023)

This cooperative project between the University of Tartu Museum, the Art Museum of Estonia and the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture of the Estonian Academy of Arts centres on the entanglements and interactions between art and science in the past and in the present.

One of its outputs is a research-based exhibition focusing on the interconnections between art and natural sciences mainly in the 19th and the early 20th centuries: the interactions between artists and scientists in researching and representing botany and zoology, medicine, climatology, palaeontology etc. in Estonian and Livonian Provinces of the Russian Empire, and the Estonian Republic of the interwar period. The broader goal of the project is to acknowledge the significant role of visual culture not only in conveying scientific ideas but also in creating, shaping and controlling knowledge.

Exhibition “Art or Science”

In these post-truth times and an era of digital explosion, these exchanges between art and science are receiving increasingly more attention, evidenced by a number of research, exhibition and creative projects. Art, visual culture and science have been interwoven in complex ways in Estonia. Today as we again look to build bridges between art and science, these historical connections seem largely forgotten. On the one hand, traditional art history has tended to regard the cooperation among artists and scientists, scientific drawings and diagrams, artists’ involvement in expeditions etc. as a prelude to, or a by-product of “true” art. In fact, the history of Baltic art, especially in the 19th century, could well be rewritten, in a way, from a scientific perspective, as for many artists it was “art for art’s sake” that was regarded as secondary. On the other hand, justice has not been done to scientific images in the history of science and knowledge either, as only recently has there been a surge of interest in the agency of images in knowledge production.

The project also spotlights the role of women in Estonian science history. Centred on eminent scientists, most of whom are men, the history of science has seriously downplayed the fact that there has always been a remarkably large number of women among the authors of scientific drawings and diagrams: the creators of knowledge, as it were. Creating drawings and diagrams was often the only way a woman could engage in science.

In emphasising the relevance of visual culture to knowledge production, both in the historical and contemporary context, we seek to emphasise the importance of visual literacy. Scientific drawings and diagrams, while quite realistic and prepared with great attention to detail, highlight the role of generalisation and schematisation in knowledge creation, and also convey ideologies and power relations. In this way, visual culture highlights the need for a critical perspective on the history of knowledge and reflects the changes in scientific thinking and knowledge over time. As science has been predominantly approached in terms of positivism and progress in Estonia, the strong links between science and power have been relatively overlooked. Yet, rethinking the history of knowledge and its visual sources opens up excellent opportunities to address issues related to colonialism, the environment, race, ethnicity and marginalisation, i.e. topics that have recently given rise to increasingly sharp controversies in art, heritage and museums in Estonia.

In conceptual terms, the project is a continuation of the transdisciplinary approach to the study of visual culture represented at the Art Museum of Estonia by the exhibitions The Progress of Images: Interpreting Estonian Art and Photography of the 19th Century (2013, curator: Tiina Abel), History in Images ‒ Images in History (2018, curators: Linda Kaljundi and Tiina-Mall Kreem) and The Conqueror’s Eye (2019, curators: Linda Kaljundi, Eha Komissarov and Kadi Polli). The role of visualisation in scholarship and research was also the subject of Jaanika Anderson’s PhD thesis Reception of Ancient Art: the Cast Collections of the University of Tartu Art Museum in the Historical, Ideological and Academic Context of Europe (1803–1918) (2015).

The project is multifaceted and innovative in terms of its goals and outputs. Besides the exhibitions planned for the Kumu Art Museum in 2022, and the University of Tartu Museum in 2023, it involves the publication of a catalogue providing a more extensive discussion, the organisation of an international conference in 2023, visitor and education programmes, and lecture courses at the Estonian Academy of Arts. This will be preceded by the mapping of the rich and varied scientific collections of the University of Tartu and relevant material in the collections of other Estonian memory institutions, as well as setting up a cooperation network for experts with an interest in the subject. Artistic research and the involvement of artists are also considered to be of key importance for the success of the project. The search for novel ways of interpretation opens up new perspectives for further collection-based research.

Project team

Curators / researchers: Jaanika Anderson and Ken Ird (University of Tartu Museum), Kadi Polli and Kristiina Tiideberg (Art Museum of Estonia ‒ Kumu Art Museum) and Linda Kaljundi (Estonian Academy of Arts)
Researchers: Lea Leppik, Ingrid Sahk and Anu Rae (University of Tartu Museum)
Artist: Kristina Norman
Graphic and exhibition design: Jaanus Samma

The collections of the following memory and research institutions will be mapped as part of the project:

Estonian History Museum, Art Museum of Estonia, Estonian Museum of Natural History, the natural scientific collections of the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Estonian Health Museum, Estonian National Museum, Tallinn University’s scientific collection of archaeology, TalTech Museum, University of Tartu Museum, University of Tartu Art Museum, University of Tartu Natural History Museum and University of Tartu Library