The 2002 Conference

The UMAC 2002 Conference was held in Sydney and Canberra in Australia from Sunday 29 September - Friday 4 October 2002.

The title and theme of the conference was: Exposing and Exploiting the Distinct Character of University Museums and Collections.

Palæographia: An exhibition blending science and art

Rhonda Davis (1), Andrew Simpson (2), Kiri Hill (1)
(1) Macquarie University Art Gallery, Macquarie University NSW 2109 AUSTRALIA
(2) Division of Environmental and Life Sciences, Macquarie University NSW 2109 AUSTRALIA


The exhibition, Palæographia, was developed for the First International Palaeontological Congress (IPC2002). It consisted of original Australian fossil specimens juxtaposed with scientific illustrations and interpretative artworks in a variety of media. It illustrated Australia's palaeontological heritage. The linkage between science and art triggered most of the positive comments by visitors. The exhibition was popular with families and school groups and provided an opportunity to develop education programs that incorporated both art and science elements. The exhibition was therefore a mechanism for introducing a new audience to the gallery experience.

An exhibition like this could only develop in a University. The complex and diverse nature of its intellectual base allows a fertile collaboration between groups that rarely work together elsewhere. It was also a good example of how a University Gallery can promote the endeavours of its scientists to a broader audience.


The First International Palaeontological Congress (IPC2002) held recently at Macquarie University featured it's own art show. 'Palæographia: Artworks from deep time' was an exhibition of original Australian artworks and fossil specimens inspired by the rich Australian fossil record. Presenting scientific illustrations of extinct fauna and flora, interpretative artworks in a variety of media and original specimens, the exhibition illustrated the long and varied history of life on our ancient continent and its adjacent marine realm.

The exhibition was primarily developed for the congress as an innovative way to showcase Australian palaeontology to an international audience. It has, however, found much wider appeal amongst gallery visitors without a specific scientific background or interest and numerous school groups. Palæographia has broken all attendance records at the University's Art Gallery and plans are in development to bring the exhibition to an even wider audience next year.

There is something about the appeal of palaeontology that strikes a chord with diverse audiences. Fossils have always fired human imagination. These shadowy projections, sometimes rich in detail, sometimes mysteriously cryptic, preserved by serendipity far beyond the limits of the original genetic mechanism, are disruptions in the fabric of time and space. They inspire awe and stretch our minds beyond the constraints of our perspective of the everyday environment.

To the earliest European settlers, Australia, once part of the great southern supercontinent Gondwana, was alive with strange creatures. Indigenous Australians, through their creation mythology (their Dream Time), incorporated a rich understanding of Australia's past into their culture. This process has epistemological, if not methodological parallels with the western intellectual tradition of palaeontology.

Palæographia also celebrated the fertile links between art and science by exploring the natural world from the perspective of geologic time and the inspiration this provides for the imaginative reconstruction of lost worlds inhabited by extinct, uniquely Australian creatures.


1. The Ediacaran fauna, first discovered in South Australia, consisting of strange soft-bodied creatures preserved as impressions in sandstones of the Flinders Ranges. They are among the earliest examples of complex multicellular animals, predating development of invertebrate skeletons 540 million years ago. Since their discovery they have been found in rocks of similar ages from many parts of the world. These creatures are the inspiration for artist Christine Ross's Brachina Gorge series. Original specimens were exhibited on an open pedestal beneath the artworks.

2. Glossopteris, a unique Gondwana plant from the Late Permian (about 255 million years ago) of eastern Australia was first described from glacial sediments near Melbourne. Their ice-age success was due in part to their habit of shedding their foliage during autumn; the abundance of leaves contributed much to Australia's coal deposits. Glossopteris is one of Australia's most common plant fossils. Burning the coals in power stations releases energy from the sun locked away in plants millions of years ago. John Wolsely explores the unique Gondwana biogeography in his work Java leaf Tiwi leaf and the sharp boundary of Wallace's Line, a phenomena reflecting relatively recent closure of the former oceanic region between Australia and Southeast Asia. Artist Pip Stokes, in her work Gondwana, has focused on our unique southern flora. The fossil Glossopteris, and its restriction to former Gondwanaland continents was historically the basis of the scientific Gondwana concept.

3. Australia's only armoured dinosaur is the small ankylosaur Minmi parvertebra discovered just over 20 years ago; it is preserved only as traces of bone and skin. It was reconstructed with detailed scientific accuracy by Newcastle artists Herbert Heinrich and Anne Llewellyn. It was been the most popular feature of the exhibition with younger visitors.

4. Diprotodon was a large herbivore, one of the megafauna that flourished in Australia prior to the last ice age. Its closest living relatives are the wombat and the koala. From skeletal remains, Australian Museum artist Anne Musser has recreated the animal in its natural environment. Some of Anne's precise scientific illustrations are also included in the exhibition. Also included are bark paintings by indigenous artists depicting giant short-faced kangaroos, typical of the long-extinct megafauna, being hunted by the earliest Australians.

5. The Winton dinosaur trackway preserves 10 seconds of sheer terror from 100 million years ago. A flock of small dinosaurs gathered by a lake were scattered by the sudden appearance of a large carnivorous dinosaur. The trackway has been intensively investigated; the sizes and speeds of the animals involved in the skirmish have been calculated. A replica of one trackway section is on display. Artist Shane Whittaker of Macquarie University has recreated the scene. This topic allowed the juxtaposition of scientific specimen (Winton trackway), model (small dinosaur on loan from the National Dinosaur Museum) and artwork.

6. Isabel Davies' Desert herbarium captures the spirit of the naturalist and the human desire for better understanding through classification. The same requirement for comparative taxonomy is seen in the small field specimen cabinet of explorer John Oxley. It is very similar to the collections of plants and minerals popular in the late 18th and early 19th century, such as the elegant ones in Malmaison, once owned by the great patron of natural sciences, the Empress Josephine (wife of Emperor Napoleon). This collection allowed Oxley, 180 years or so ago, to make direct comparisons between specimens discovered during exploration in inland Australia and specimens already identified within the framework of an established scientific scheme. The inclusion of a historical artefact gives the exhibition a broader context for the audience.

7. Throughout the long history of Gondwana, the types of animals that built immense reefs fringing the continental landmass changed with changing environments and genetic flexibility of the organisms. Reef building creatures from our deep past are completely different from those making up Earth's largest living structure, the Great Barrier Reef. These changing fortunes are illustrated by Anna Choi's The Dying Colony. This work was exhibited with fossil corals from the Palaeozoic Era in the collections of the Earth Sciences Museum at Macquarie University.

8. Jorg Shmeisser's Gifts from the Sea and Diary and Shells illustrate fossil and living invertebrates, the latter from present day marine platforms. Creatures such as the ammonite featured in Gifts from the Sea are common fossils, regarded in the Middle Ages as having been wicked creatures, 'coiled stone snakes'. They are in fact closely related to living Nautilus. Schmeisser's work is exhibited together with Australian ammonites from the Macquarie University collections.

9. When did the ability to take to the skies as illustrated in John Olsen's work first develop? The famous fossil, Archeopteryx, with dinosaur bones and feather impressions was the first evidence of the link between dinosaurs and birds. Since then the fabulous feathered dinosaurs of China have been discovered, but few realise Australia has a significant piece in the puzzle. Feathers preserved in minute detail from the Cretaceous (110 million years) shales of Koonwarra were long regarded as the second oldest feathers in the world. Though some authorities believe that birds originated on the Gondwana supercontinent, the Early Cretaceous feathers from Koonwarra are the oldest evidence for birds on Gondwana. Their morphology compares closely in detail with the feathers of living cormorants.

10. For over a hundred years, enigmatic microscopic fossils called conodonts (cone teeth) have been recovered from very old limestones: 220-450 million years. For more than a century, scientists argued over the biological affinity of these tiny objects, made of calcium phosphate, occurring sometimes in great profusion and in a bewildering range of forms. At various times they have been argued to belong to almost every major animal group. Although the interpretation is not universally accepted, it now appears they were in fact teeth from the earliest group of proto-vertebrates. Sydney artist Dean Oliver, fascinated by the spectrum of forms, accurately depicts a small sample of these bizarre items.

Apart from the highlights outlined above Palaeographia was essentially a joint project between Macquarie University's Art Gallery and Earth Sciences Museum. Whilst the University's collection made up the majority of content an impressive range of both art and science based, public and private organisations and individuals also contributed items. Some of these were eclectic items such as The Perth Mint's unreleased set of sterling silver dinosaur coins and some spectacular pottery with fossil motifs by Newcastle potter Nora Moelle.

Education programs

The broad nature of the exhibition, threading elements of art and science allowed for the development of innovative education programs. The congress (IPC2002) also included a three-day workshop for science teachers. Topics covered in the program entitled "A Festival of Fossils" focussed specifically on the development of palaeontology programs for various school age groups.

The program included basic preparation and replication techniques, using trilobites and brachiopods to interpret environments, recovering and identifying foraminifera, a fossilisation experiment (the good, the bad and the smelly!), determining how fast dinosaurs ran, fossils in open ended investigations, using palaeontological press releases as a basis for classroom discussion and running a field trip for students.

Although the program was designed for Australian teachers there was much interest from some of the international delegates and an opportunity for teachers and scientists to interact. A booklet for the program was produced (Simpson & Winchester-Seeto, 2002) and it is intended to put some of the individual units on a Macquarie University website as downloadable pdf documents in the future. Meanwhile some of these are finding their way into the pages of our local education journals. The exhibition itself has been reported to the earth science profession in Australia (Simpson 2002).


For those seeking insights into our perceptions of the natural world there are two choices. They can visit museums, examine specimens, read scientifically accurate exhibit labels and plunge into original publications, or they can visit an art gallery and explore lost worlds through the vision and creativity of others. Palaeographia attempted to bridge a little of the cultural divide between arts and science and from the resulting visitor numbers was outstandingly successful in achieving this.

We believe Universities are the ideal setting for collaboration across the artificial divide between science and art. Whilst similar exhibitions could be developed through cross institutional links between a natural history museum and an art gallery, Universities are potentially the most fertile ground for these collaborations as they represent are vast and diverse spectrum of intellectual endeavour. Comments from the visitors book indicate that general audiences are very receptive to the integration of science and art. This was best summed up by the following comment about the exhibition 'Great left brain-right brain stuff'

Furthermore, Palaeographia was a good example of how a facility such as a University Art Gallery, often a pre-eminent vehicle for community interaction, can also be a showcase for its own scientific constituency.

A number of regional galleries in three states have expressed an interest in hosting the exhibition during 2003 and 2004.


Simpson, A. 2002. Palaeontology as an art form. The Australian Geologist: 124, 26-27.

Simpson, A. and Winchester-Seeto, T. (Eds) 202. A Festival of Fossils. Macquarie University Centre for Ecostratigraphy and Palaeobiology and the Division of Environmental and Life Sciences, Macquarie University, 1-63.

Copyright © 2002 Rhonda Davis, Andrew Simpson, and Kiri Hill. All rights reserved.

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