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Photographs from glass slides on display at Hocken

The Hocken Library

Thursday, 16 March 2017 9:51am

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

The Hocken’s new exhibition, The Glass Archive, a major exhibition by Wayne Barrar, starts this Saturday.

Barrar has curated the exhibition from his ongoing project tracing and photographing historic microscope slides and archives. His work 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 worldwide.

Barrar’s descriptive and imaginative images, on show in the gallery on the first floor of the Hocken, incorporate a range of forms, including varied microfossils from Oamaru and other sites overseas, and extant freshwater and marine diatoms. The images 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.

Anna Petersen, Curator of Photographs at the Hocken, says the exhibition is extremely relevant for the University of Otago, as Ewan Fordyce in Geology leads research on fossils in the Waitaki Valley region, and also Christina Riesselman in Geology and Marine Science studies ancient diatoms from Antarctica as part of the global effort to understand climate changes. Scientists in Chemistry also grow diatoms for the same international cause.

Staff at the Centre of Quantum Science in Physics run an annual photography contest for people interested in capturing the natural beauty of earth, space and the weather.

“And the Hocken preserves early photographs created by all the different processes, partly as a teaching collection for students studying photographic history as well as providing inspiration for contemporary works such as these by Wayne Barrar,” says Dr Petersen.

The exhibition draws on the overlapping histories of the collection, trade, study and Barrar’s 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.

The exhibition runs until 13 April.

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.

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).

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