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Exhibit Traces Biological Time with Trilobites, Bacteria and Hagfish

Visit “Biological Time” in the Northwest Building at 52 Oxford Street.

Dorothy Barr

July 2, 2013—On June 26, Dorothy Barr, public services librarian at the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, waited excitedly for museum curators and researchers to trickle in with dragonflies, a vial of cyanobacteria and a jar containing a preserved hagfish—all to be displayed in her exhibit “Biological Time” in the Northwest Building on Oxford Street.

Every six months, Barr—with the help of many Harvard staff, faculty and researchers—installs a new exhibit in the in the lobby of the building. “I choose my themes in part to help showcase what our faculty and researchers are already working on—and in part by what is most visually interesting,” she said. The idea for the previous exhibit on bioluminescence was inspired by faculty member J. Woodland (“Woody”) Hastings' recently published book, Bioluminescence: Living Lights, Lights for Living, written with Therese Wilson

The idea to curate an exhibit on biological time stemmed from seeing the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments’ current exhibition, “Time, Life & Matter: Science in Cambridge.” Barr’s exhibit is a more specific depiction of time based only on the history of life. In her web guide to the exhibit, which provides in-depth supplementary information, Barr writes: “Time! It flies, passes, goes by. It can seem fleeting or endless. Here we look specifically at its biological aspects—how life has developed over time; how circadian rhythms regulate our lives; how organisms grow and develop; and how timing is everything.”

Barr reached out to faculty, staff members and researchers and asked them to lend materials that are both visually captivating and relevant to the theme. “From 35 hundred million years ago to around 542 hundred million years ago, life just slogged along with few changes,” Barr said, as she made last-minute, deliberate changes to the display cases before they were sealed with plexiglass. A biology specialist at Ernst Mayr, Barr holds a master’s degree in natural history—and she speaks effusively about how “hagfish exude slime when they’re attacked” or how, if C. elegans babies hatch without sufficient food available, they will wait until the time is right to continue developing.

The exhibit also displays an original 1893 monograph by William Morton Wheeler, a well-known entomologist and Harvard professor, from The Journal of Morphology and drawings from the Ernst Mayr Library’s collections. Dana Fisher of the Ernst Mayr Library, assistant for special collections, was involved with selecting the drawings for the display and the LibGuide.

Victoria Wilke, curatorial assistant at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, works closely with Barr on these rotating exhibits. “Dorothy does a great job of highlighting the collection,” Wilke said. “We all appreciate her hard work.”

Materials for “Biological Time” were contributed by many people, including collections staff and curators of the Museum of Comparative Zoology; Exhibits and Education staff of the Harvard Museum of Natural History; faculty, postdocs and graduate students in the labs of Erin O’Shea, Cassandra Extavour and Susan Mango; and Renate Hellmiss and her staff in MCB Graphics.