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Wayne Barrar: The Glass Archive

Barrarglassarchive118 March - 13 April 2017

Hocken Library
90 Anzac Avenue
Monday-Saturday 10am to 5pm

Saturday 1 April, 2.00pm
‘Matter and Metaphor: The Glass Archive’ a curator’s floor talk by Assoc. Prof. Wayne Barrar
At the Hocken Gallery

The Glass Archive is a major exhibition by Wayne Barrar, drawn from his ongoing project tracing and photographing historic microscope slides and archives. It is primarily concerned with diatoms (microscopic algae) and with the ‘Oamaru diatomite’ deposit, whose spectacularly diverse and arresting microfossils are famous among scientists and microscope enthusiasts world-wide.

Barrar’s descriptive and imaginative images incorporate a range of forms, including varied microfossils from Oamaru and other sites overseas, and extant freshwater and marine diatoms. They have been produced using a range of microscope methods, and also record artifacts and samples from collections in New Zealand, the UK and the USA.

The exhibition draws on the overlapping histories of the collection, trade, study and sheer enjoyment of diatoms and their companion microfossils. The images are beautiful and captivating, and depict fascinating links between art and science, history and imagination.

Additional background: Oamaru diatomite

In 1886, the director of New Zealand’s Colonial Museum and Geological Survey, James Hector and geologist Julius von Haast, arranged for samples of New Zealand geological deposits to be displayed at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London. In among the rocks, minerals and fossil samples was a small piece of light, chalk-like material from Oamaru. This unassuming-looking material proved to be diatomite, and it caused a sensation among professional and amateur scientists around the world.

Oamaru diatomite was notable for its tremendous diversity of diatoms – more than 700 species identified to date, many unique to the area and many now extinct – which had been laid down as strata in the warm seas that once encompassed the region.

Samples sourced from deposits on Oamaru farms and rail sidings with the help of locals Thomas Forrester and Harry De Latour, were soon being studied, identified and exchanged internationally. Microscope slides of diatoms were sold to amateur microscopists, and slides of artistic arrangements were produced to entertain a Victorian public obsessed with new ways of visualising the world. Even today these remarkable specimens are still researched and held in some of the great natural history collections around the world, including the Otago Museum.

The exhibition is of current relevance at the University of Otago, as Ewan Fordyce in Geology leads research on fossils in the Waitaki Valley region, Christina Riesselman in Geology and Marine Science studies ancient diatoms from Antarctica as part of the global effort to understand climate changes and scientists in Chemistry actually grow diatoms for the same international cause. Staff at the Centre of Quantum Science in Physics run an annual photography contest for anyone interested in capturing the natural beauty of our earth, space and weather, and the Hocken serves to preserve early photographs created by all the different processes (including albumen prints), partly as a teaching collection for students studying photographic history as well as providing inspiration for contemporary works such as these by Wayne Barrar.

Biographical note

Wayne Barrar is an Associate Professor at the School of Art at Massey University, Wellington. His photography has been widely exhibited and published internationally since the 1980s. His publications include Shifting Nature (University of Otago Press, 2001), An Expanding Subterra (Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2010) and Torbay tī kōuka: A New Zealand tree in the English Riviera (University of Plymouth Press, 2011).

The Glass Archive exhibition profiled in the Otago Daily Times, 28 March 2017.

Image: Wayne Barrar, ‘Selected species, Jackson’s North End, Oamaru NZ.’ Arranged diatom slide by R. I. Firth, March 1965. (Photographed 2014.)