Friday, September 23, 2011

Mary Anning and the art of fossil hunting

Robey Tapp loves history and science and has served as a docent at Emory’s Carlos Museum for the past six years. She is also an independent artist who works in fiber. When she was invited to create a piece for the Fernbank Museum’s special Darwin exhibit, opening on Saturday, Sept. 24, Tapp started reading up on the England of Darwin’s time. That’s how she stumbled across Mary Anning.

Anning was a contemporary of Darwin’s, a self-taught paleontologist, who made key findings that supported Darwin’s theory of evolution. She grew up poor on the southern England coast and did not receive full scientific credit for her work during her lifetime, due to her gender and working-class status.

A painting of Mary Anning, left, hangs in the Natural History Museum of London.

“Every day she walked along the water in Lyme Regis where she lived,” Tapp says. “She saw things in the rocks and she dug them out.”

In 1811, when Anning was just 12 years old, she and her brother Joseph discovered the fossil of an entirely new animal, later named Ichthyosaurus. Throughout her life, Anning continued to make discoveries, working tirelessly along the rugged coastline.

“What inspires me about her is that she believed in herself and her findings despite the fact that it went against the religion of the time,” Tapp says. “She was really upsetting the apple cart. And she didn’t stop because she was a woman, and people told her that women couldn’t be scientists.”

Anning died poor but “her work lives on,” Tapp says. In 2010 the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the 10 British women who have most influenced the history of science.

Tapp’s fiber art inspired by Anning is part of the “Selections” show at Fernbank. Local artists, including scientists from Emory’s department of environmental studies, have created pieces influenced by evolution. The art will remain on display during the museum’s special exhibit commemorating the life and mind of Darwin, which continues through January 1.

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