presented by the Natural History Museum of Utah
SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – The Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU), which houses nearly 1.7 million specimens for academic research in its collections, hosted a revealing exhibit about something we see, choose and use to represent ourselves in our everyday life: color.
The exhibition “The Nature of Color” helps us make sense of the world, meaning both the human world and the natural world.
The exhibit, which is presented in Utah by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, begins with “an invitation to imagine a world without color,” says Claire Davis, exhibit designer at NHMU.
“Light shines on the walls around you, shifting and allowing the walls to appear colorful or monotonous, depending on the change. “If we imagined a world without color, we think it wouldn’t be as beautiful, but it there are so many other things that we would lose. It affects our psychology, our cultures, biodiversity, our functioning in nature,” Davis said.
The concept is an interesting way to preface the exhibition, emphasizing the importance of light and its corresponding wavelength when we generally imagine color to be distinguished by pigment.
Light, however, has a different effect.
When we look at computers, for example, we see the RGB model, which uses red, green, and blue light to produce a wide range of colors. “I always wondered how to get yellow from red, green and blue? But look, you mix green and red and you get yellow,” Davis says. If you mix green and red paint, you will get brown.
A wall is presented which shows how to play with light to create different colors, young and old discover and have fun.
In the future, we begin to focus on creating colors in the form of pigments and dyes. An interactive display shows how you can create indigo dye, perhaps, with the use of leaves.
The exhibition tells the story of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who got into debt because of his love for a particularly brilliant dark blue color pigment known as ultramarine blue.
As we delve deeper into the world of color, we observe a stag beetle, whose appearance is not determined by its pigment, but by its structure. In other words, the reflection of light off its complex physical structure, or microstructure, gives the appearance of a wide range of colors, a rainbow to the human eye.
Jason Cryan, Executive Director of NHMU, points to a concept known as aposematic coloration, seen in insects as well as other organisms, which is essential for the survival of many species and can be described as “coloration of Warning”.
This concept illustrates why humans, as well as other organisms, have an innate and instinctive fear of brightly colored creatures. This is why a spider with striped orange legs or a red hourglass on its abdomen can cause the nervous system reaction known as “goosebumps.”
Aposematic coloration has been developed throughout evolution to warn of defense mechanisms, such as toxic venom, bad taste, or aggressive behavior.
In other words, “Don’t mess with me.”
The exhibit hosts three brightly colored poison dart frogs, one red, one blue, and one yellow, as one of nature’s most exciting examples of aposematic coloring. Cryan points out that other organisms will even mimic the poisonous creatures, announcing bright colors despite having no poisonous defense mechanisms themselves.
In contrast, Cryan notes that other organisms use color for the exact opposite effect, to be as invisible as possible through camouflage.
But color isn’t just used to deter predators, it can also be used to attract mates. Looking at damselflies, in the same group as dragonflies, female Australian damselflies are blue until they are ready to mate. Then these creatures turn green, sometimes in less than 24 hours, which means they are ready and help young females avoid harassment from males until they are sexually mature.
Another room, dubbed “The Red Room”, shows how color evokes feeling and how different cultures have used color in association with emotion. For example, we may associate red with feelings of anger, poor performance, or emergencies. You may see a bad result written in red, an angry emoji colored in red, or a fire truck painted in red.
“Blood is red, so that might be an evolutionary reason why we have this association,” Davis says.
But red has a different meaning in our history because red ochre, a natural clay earth pigment and one of the oldest pigments in the world, was used in the prehistoric art of cave paintings that exist in the whole world.
The oldest example, found in South Africa, dates back 73,000 years.
Another example shown here is so-called cochineal dyes, which have been commonly and historically used as a food additive. So instead of artificial red coloring, you may see cochineal coloring, an organic option, in your yogurt.
“Cochineal dyes all come from cochineal insects, which are basically mealybugs. In this particular group, the males, when you dry them and dust them and spray them, they create these vibrant pigments and dyes,” says Cryan.
While we as humans try to recreate the brilliant colors found in nature, in flowers, for example, these colors are not just for our viewing pleasure.
“Pollinators see these flowers very differently, so if you were to shine a UV light on the flowers, you’d see a completely different pattern. It’s almost like a little landing strip for pollinators,” Cryan says.
Towards the end of the exhibit, you can see a locally specialized exhibit, designed by Davis, showing Utah’s color spectrum across a variety of sciences.
Have you ever expected to find a purple vertebra?
Fossils absorb minerals from the environment, oxidize and create unexpected beautiful colors.
And right in front, the exhibit has an amazingly interactive wall of light, where you can see your movements recorded and displayed on the wall.
Finally, we see a number of human portraits, each displaying the Pantone, or the very specific color determined by a universal language of color, extracted from the pixels of each individual’s skin color. The display shows how much we vary in skin tone within race and how the concept of race can be interpreted as non-existent, with each person having their own unique skin tone within a vast color spectrum.
“People tend to think of races, and this is a great illustration of the fact that there is no biological basis for race. Human skin tone is on a spectrum, and there is no there are no defined boundaries between the races,” says Cryan.
The exhibition presents something for everyone: science, culture, history, visual wonder and a bit of fun.
Cryan, Ph.D. in entomology, the study of insects, specializes in a suborder of insects known as Auchenorrhyncha, which consists of insects like cicadas, leafhoppers, leafhoppers, leafhoppers, and spittlebugs.
He looks at these creatures in the context of millions of years of selection in nature, or evolutionary development, causing organisms to have a certain appearance and a certain color or structure. “To me, it’s endlessly fascinating, things that structurally resemble other things, parts of plants, thorns, it’s amazing,” Cryan says.
Davis says the interactive and immersive aspect of the exhibit is something she really enjoys, and Cyran notes that the fun kids are having in it is actually learning. “It’s the kind of engagement we really like to see, where people are happy to be here,” Cryan says. “It’s an opportunity to reflect on something we take for granted every day. We all have color in our lives,” adds Davis.
They both agree that their favorite color is green: the color of life, the color of abundance.
As part of the University of Utah, NHMU’s collections rank among the largest and most comprehensive in the western United States, especially in the fields of paleontology, anthropology, entomology, vertebrate zoology, mineralogy, botany and malacology.
The Nature of Color exhibit is available at NHMU until August 14, 2022.
Click here to see a preview of the exhibition and here to visit the NHMU website.