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Behind the Scenes of Creatures of Light

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On Exhibit posts

Curator John Sparks under water in full scuba gear.
Curator John Sparks will be blogging about the upcoming exhibition Creatures of Light. Photo courtesy of John Sparks

Curator John Sparks will be blogging weekly about the upcoming exhibition, Creatures of Light, which opens on Saturday, March 31.

In just a little over a month, on March 31, the American Museum of Natural History will open our latest exhibition, Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,which focuses on the amazing diversity of organisms that produce light across every conceivable habitat. Every exhibition we produce is a collaboration between the Museum’s research scientists and the exhibition team, which includes writers, designers, artists, and media specialists. I’m the curator for this exhibition, which means that I oversee the scientific content and bring expertise from my research—in this case, on the evolution of bioluminescent signaling systems in marine fishes.We’re hard at work on the show this month, and I’ll be writing weekly posts from behind the scenes to offer some glimpses of what goes into producing a major exhibition. Here’s my first dispatch:

Getting the Light Right

Scientific accuracy is our top priority. Although it may seem trivial, getting the color (or wavelength) of the emitted light just right for this exhibition’s many models of bioluminescent creatures—fireflies, glowworms, siphonophores, and ponyfishes—is fundamental to accurately reproducing the diversity of natural light that organisms use for a variety of functions.

David Gruber and Amy Vlastelica use a spectrophotometer to measure the spectrum of emitted light. Photo courtesy of John Sparks

During one of our weekly walk-throughs in the Department of Exhibition’s studio, I snapped this photo of Museum Research Associate David Gruber (CUNY), who has been working with me on the exhibition, and one of the designers, Amy Vlastelica. They’re using a portable spectrophotometer, an instrument that measures the spectrum of emitted light, and an array of colored filters to find just the right combination to match the natural wavelength of bioluminescent light produced by each organism highlighted in the exhibit. As a result, visitors will be able to see the subtly dissimilar colors that different species of fireflies use to attract mates, as well as the myriad colors used by bioluminescent creatures across the tree of life.

Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence opens on Saturday, March 31.