Oh Jellyfish, Where Is Thy Sting?

Hat tip to Georgia Council for the Arts which posted a link to the Smithsonian article, Why Science Needs Art.  The article focuses largely on marine life, but the basic gist is that there is so much about science the general public doesn’t understand or have the equipment to experience that artistic execution is necessary to translate that into comprehensible terms.

One of the first examples given discusses how a student from the Maryland Institute College of Art working at the Smithsonian museum kept getting questions about how jellyfish sting.

She always got the same question from visitors, “how do jellyfish stings work?” She had the scientific answer for them but found it difficult to explain the microscopic stinging cells that fire like harpoons out of jelly tentacles without a clear visual.

That’s when a lightbulb went off in Payne’s mind. She could show visitors how jellyfish sting using art. Payne immediately got to work in the sculpture shop at her school, excited to bring the microscopic stinging cells into full view.

Payne built a 3D model of one of the stinging cells that line jelly tentacles—called a nematocyst—that visitors could touch and interact with. The model showed visitors a jelly’s stinging power and helped Payne explain how to take care of a jellyfish sting.

Later, a marine scientist discusses how she took up photography in order to capture animals in the natural habitat because they looked entirely different there than preserved in a museum.  And the merged scientific and artistic perspective have benefits toward greater application:

Her discoveries apply to fields beyond science, like technology. Right now, Osborn’s team is looking at how a spineless, free-swimming bristle worm called a Tomopteris moves to help the tech industry make better, lighter and more maneuverable robots.

But studying these and other midwater creatures takes a highly trained eye for discerning shapes. “I do illustrations, sketch and photograph the animal to understand its structure,” Osborn explained.

This ability to pay careful attention to patterns, shapes and spatial relationships helps scientists properly observe and discover—key pillars of the scientific process. It also helps them create clear visuals of the collected data. Graphs, figures and scientific illustrations are all more powerful when they have a touch of artistry.

Free Admission Wasn’t Useful But Will It Become Necessary?

According to CityLab Berliners are returning to the city’s museums, with credit being given to free admission Sundays.  Sixty-seven museums are offering free admission which is part of a larger effort to explore ways in which people can assemble during the pandemic.


Participating museums are required to follow hygiene and distancing rules. Offering free entrance to the museums alone won’t bring back crowds to the city center — people need to feel it is safe to visit museums and public places again, said Klaus Lederer, Berlin’s Senator for Culture and Europe.


The Museum Sunday is also one of several cultural happenings in Berlin that has found a way to attract visitors amid a sustained global health crisis. Events like the Berlin Art Week, the open-air event Draussenstadt and the Clubculture reboot weekend, a pilot project to experiment how partying can work during a pandemic, are taking place in Berlin this summer.

The free admission Sundays were being planned prior to the pandemic as a way to attract a broader audience. In the US at least research has shown that free admission doesn’t really attract new visitors, but rather attract those who already visit the museum thereby delaying their next potential paid visit by a year or two. Hearing about a similar plan in Berlin made me wonder if the same held true for Germany or if there are are more nuanced dynamics at work there.

This being said, given that people have had 18+ months of not attending public events, a situation that may extend into the near future, it may be necessary to offer free admission to entice the return of those who would normally visit. What that portends for the future remains to be seen.

Is Economic Impact Declining As Most Important Measure of Value?

As I go about arguing against using measures like economic impact and test scores for valuing the arts, I occasionally get push back from people who note that for better or for worse dollars and test score are quantifiable and compelling and therefore are what will matter most to policy makers, funders, and individual donors.

The thing is, we know that a lot of people value things that aren’t so easily measured but are deemed to be important. Scott Walters recently posted a reaction to a CNN story about the impact working from home has been having:

If your browser is blocking the image, it reads: “This obsession with “the economy” distorts the issue. Is working from home good for human beings? Is it good for the environment? Instead, we focus on latte consumption. Come on, @CNN, THINK https://t.co/qH4yKTVv2b ”

We know from research conducted by projects like Creating Connection that people view participation in arts events has having positive associations with interpersonal relationships, physical and mental health, social good, self-improvement along with other benefits.

With so much in the news about people rethinking their relationship with work and its place in their lives and stories of athletes asserting boundaries about the activities in which they are willing to participate, this is a time when people are recognizing that customary process and values may no longer be relevant. Or perhaps it is better said that people are questioning whether they continue subsuming their existing values of health and well-being to economic opportunity and test scores.

In this there is an opportunity to work on reframing the terms in which the arts are valued so that they resonate in empathy with the introspection and questioning about values and norms which is occurring.

Little Bit Of Love For Intangible Benefits In Economic Reporting

Being a big proponent of libraries a radio story by Marketplace on the value of libraries caught my attention. Being an economics focused show, their analysis initially focused on return on investment:

Farrell: Well, there’s this recent study — this one grabbed my attention — [by] three economists [from] Montana State University, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Miami University. And they calculate by some measures a healthy return on investment. So among their findings, library capital investment increases children’s attendance at library events by 18%, children’s checkout of items by 21% and total library visits by 21%. Now, OK, that’s interesting, but increases in library use translate into improved children’s test scores in nearby school districts.

Long time readers know that I am also a proponent of not couching the value of everything in terms of economics and test scores so I was pleased that the reporters followed with a longer discussion of the intangible contributions libraries make to social cohesion:

Brancaccio: So there are interesting, almost hard-to-quantify benefits as well?

Farrell: That’s right. And that’s, you know, really the thing that stands out to me is we’re living through an era where there’s a lack of trust in so many institutions and, you know, the sense that we have connections with each other, I mean, that’s splintering. Well, public libraries are still trustworthy, community institutions and most important, public libraries are open to everyone. It doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter your race, ethnicity, social class and net worth.


Farrell: And this is why I think the return on investment, particularly as you’ve mentioned, the return on investment on the intangibles, is so important. So a lot more needs to be done to maintain buildings, update bathrooms, increase the number of hours that they’re open, and there’s a wonderful book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg, “Palaces for the People.” And you know, in that book, he persuasively argues that libraries, the people who work there, and the people who visit that they’re essential to our democracy, and to our community. So support your local library.

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