The Cinema of Science

What do birds, cicadas, and solar prominences have in common? These were all subjects of films produced by the Institute of Science in its first decade of existence. Maybe it’s those Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episodes I watched in syndication as a kid, but when I uncovered films made and produced by some of the Institute’s earliest scientific staff, I felt like I had hit the jackpot.

The 2014 Center for Collections and Research exhibition, Cranbrook Goes to the Movies: Films and Their Objects, 1925-1975, featured a 1960 Institute promotional film titled, So, You’re Going to Visit the Institute, which introduced viewers to the museum’s exhibit halls. Fascinating though it is, the film was hardly the Institute’s first foray into film production.

Credits and introduction of So, You’re Going to Visit the Institute, Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1960. 16mm film, 13:14 minutes (full-length). Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In fact, the Institute’s “Ciné Film Collection” had begun in 1935, just five years after the Institute opened. Scientists at the Institute, not merely content to rely on handwritten notes and still photography, embraced the new 16mm motion picture technology to record their field research and then craft educational films for Institute members.

Some of the raw footage taken in the field was recently recovered, courtesy of the Museum of Cultural and Natural History staff at Central Michigan University. These 177 films found their way back to Cranbrook after over fifty years on the road, journeying to North Carolina and back, by way of Mt. Pleasant, MI. Created by Walter Nickell (also affiliated with CMU’s museum), Edward T. Boardman, S.P. Stackpole, Florence Maxwell, and other Institute staff, several of them can be traced directly to the aforementioned early educational films.

Take for instance, Birds in Summer, the first production, which almost certainly used footage taken that same year by zoologist Edward T. Boardman, labeled “Great Blue Herons Bird’s Nests.” Couple that with the September 1935 Institute News-Letter [sic] announcement, “New Movies in Color,” which heralded the work of zoologists that summer, and you get a fuller sense of the flurry of filming activity. The article goes on to mention the capture of new footage of Michigan animals, including hummingbirds, baby herons, and others, that were soon to be edited into films.

Institute staff continued to film birds even after the 1935 educational film was completed. Walter P. Nickell, July 27, 1944. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Another early film drew from raw footage now in the Archives, perhaps again at the hand of Boardman or Donald T. Ries, Curator of the Division of Insects. Emergence of the Periodical Cicada at Cranbrook was released the following year and had several showings.

Also in 1936, a modern solar tower was built at the new McMath-Hulbert Observatory in Pontiac that made possible a film by Robert R. McMath, Institute Trustee and Chairman of the Astronomy Division, and Director of the Observatory. The film was shown publicly for the first time in the Cranbrook Pavilion, to the largest Institute audience to date: 575 people.

View of Dr. Robert McMath at the controls of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory’s solar telescope, 1940. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Some 3,000 feet of motion picture film footage was shot in just the first year of production, alone. Though it’s not yet confirmed how many in total were produced in the 1930s, nine resulting educational films are currently preserved in the Archives. While research work is the predominate focus, other films include exhibitions and staff activities, including field trips with the museum’s junior members.

Junior Members, on a field trip, descend into a quarry in Monroe, MI, September 1935. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Like So You Want to Visit the Institute, the Archives hopes to digitize all nine films. Get your popcorn ready!

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Behind-the-Scenes: Bringing Art, Science, and History to Cranbrook’s Tables

Eric Perry photographs work from Megha Gupta (CAA Ceramics 2023) alongside collections from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House and eggs from Cranbrook Institute of Science.

If you walked into Cranbrook House, Saarinen House, or Smith House this week, you might have noticed some surprising guests have arrived at the table. Your Center for Collections and Research team have been busy installing Brought to the Table, the fifth intervention of new work by Cranbrook Academy of Art students and Artists-in-Residence in our three historic homes.

This year’s virtual exhibition is a Cranbrook-wide collaboration that brings site-specific work from across the Academy’s eleven departments into conversation with objects from Cranbrook’s Cultural Properties, Art Museum, and Institute of Science collections.

Kiwi Nguyen (CAA Metals 2023), Iris Eichenberg (Metals Artist-in-Residence), and Kevin Adkisson (Center Curator) strategize in the Saarinen House studio.

Brought to the Table engages with the long tradition of functional art at Cranbrook and pairs new works of art with objects from the Cranbrook collections made for dining tables, coffee tables, desks, or side tables. Before the exhibition kicks off at the Virtual Opening and Lecture on March 27th, I’d like to give you a sneak peek at the exhibition process.

This was my first experience curating contemporary art and I was grateful to learn from my capable co-curators, Metalsmithing Artist-in-Residence (AIR) Iris Eichenberg and Center Curator Kevin Adkisson.

From planning with Kevin and Iris; coordinating with our wonderful Academy artists; selecting objects with colleagues at the Institute of Science and Art Museum; installing with the help of students; and assisting with photography, this exhibition took me all over the Cranbrook campus.

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The Art of Simplicity: Bonawit’s Grisaille

The clerestory windows designed by G. Owen Bonawit in the nave of Christ Church seem to be one of the least described elements of the church’s artwork. The work was negotiated and subcontracted through architect Oscar H. Murray at Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Associates rather than commissioned directly through George G. Booth. Consequently, there are few documentary vestiges of the artist’s process in our records.

The windows can be studied through other materials held by the Archives, including architectural drawings, photographs, and the records of a window restoration project which commenced in 1993. In 1995, the Thompson Art Glass company made rubbings of the window for the purposes of identifying their care and preservation needs.

There are seventeen grisaille clerestory windows in the nave and chancel at Christ Church, which were analyzed as part of this stained-glass restoration project. They are made of clear antique glass upon which minute floral detail is painted and accentuated by the addition of small amounts of colored glass. In the chancel, there are two lancets and tracery of nine panels supported by T-bars including one ventilator panel. In the nave, they are comprised of three lancets and tracery with eight panels, with ventilator panels making up the bottom row.

Detail from Architectural drawing of Christ Church Cranbrook, North Elevation. April 30, 1925. Drawn by J.E.M./Oscar H. Murray, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Architects. [AD.10.33]. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Grisaille, literally meaning ‘to grey,’ is a type of stained glass that is mostly monochromatic, with a silver or grey tone being painted onto the finished glass. The purpose of the plainness of grisaille is twofold: they let more light into the space both literally and metaphorically in that they were intended to limit distraction from meditation.

The grisaille stained glass style is thought to have originated in French Cistercian abbeys after a prohibition on colored glass issued by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134 in accordance with their charism of simplicity. St. Bernard, the master of paradox, also banned the use of figurative decoration according to the First Commandment of no graven images. Under his guidance, the Cistercians seek the face of God, a theological anomaly that produces an exquisite spiritual discipline and religious practice through which the monk contemplates holiness by virtue of continually recognizing the poverty of their thoughts and feelings when weighed down by seeking to satisfy worldly desire. The style often employs natural or geometric patterns, much like a labyrinth.

The windows can best be observed by sitting in the aisle stalls of the nave, which are in themselves an unusual feature otherwise only found in Oxford college chapels. The walls of the nave were originally intended to display memorials and artwork, but the latter idea was revised due to the objection that it would bring a museum feel to a house of worship.

Aisle stalls in left side of sanctuary. June 23, 1946. Photographer, Harvey Croze. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Added in 1930, the aisle stalls offer a fine perspective from which to observe the grisaille, and Bonawit’s elegant craftmanship brings with it a history of monastic inspired light. Since a life without beauty is only half lived, the artistic eclecticism of Christ Church offers all those who enter the opportunity to embrace the other half both in its resplendency and in its simplicity.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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