The impact made by specific historic periods on scientists' scope to nail new discoveries is put into sharp focus by a perusal of the fruits of their labours. Before slipping away it’s hard to resist sliding a colourful specimen under the light microscope perched on a table near the end to see for yourself. Some trapped insects look like they may make a get away, their heads poking out of the cover slip.
Barnett takes stock of the curious array of 10,000 Victorian microscope slides to present work devised from the specimens in a number of formats. A black and white photograph of a pioneering safari is ornately framed alongside a negative shrunk to fit on a microscope slide. The Artist plays beautifully with the concept of scale, representing a mammoth elephant flanked by proud explorers all in miniature. The supplied magnifying glass is the ‘voice of scale’ as the lyrical lines of a later poem sound out, ‘while plankton think we are a race of eyes’. After all, ‘there’s nothing big about being big’. Certainly the microscopic life forms spotted on the opulent wallpaper motif along with the ‘Wintry diatoms’ do not know they are small.
A lesson in citizenship stems from an unlikely source, ‘cork through a lens is full of boundaries’. The cell theory reveals itself through such ideas during the Restoration, a period that is also credited with the arrival of Punch and Judy shows. A TV screen fitted to a puppet theatre booth shows the invention that makes all these incredible invisible critters come into view. Barnett’s animated film presents a gleaming microscope folding and unfolding magically at the push of a button. The spectacular film plays just one block over from the site of the house on the High Street where Robert Hooke invented light microscopy and recorded the first view of a cell. This exhibition shows the kaleidoscope of curiosities, such as rotifers and tardigrades, that Hooke’s technology brings to light.
Some sections are perfectly visible au naturel, like polarised light running through a mineral section, and these make stunning images. Other sections need more help and are deeply tinted by chemicals needed to fix the specimen. The stinking deep purple liquid commonly dripped on slices of onion root in High School Biology class springs to mind and shows up textbook detail in the material. However not even science can guarantee permanence and these stunning slides are no exception. The inevitable odd cracked cover slip and stain crystallising out of the image makes it more precious. Time passes too quickly in the company of this fascinating collection of Art that deserves several repeat visits. See you there - after all, it’s a small world!