SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – The Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU), which houses nearly 1.7 million specimens purposed for academic research in its collections, has welcomed an eye-opening exhibit on something we see, choose from, and use to represent ourselves in our everyday lives: color.
“The Nature of Color” exhibit helps us make sense of the world, that is, both the human and natural world.
The exhibit, which is brought to Utah by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, starts off with “an invitation to imagine a world without color,” says Claire Davis, an exhibition designer at NHMU.
Light shines on the walls around you, shifting and allowing for the walls to appear colorfully vibrant or monotone, depending on the shift. “If we imagine a world without color, we think it wouldn’t be as beautiful, but there are so many other things we would lose. It affects our psychology, our cultures, biodiversity, how we function in nature,” Davis says.
The concept is an interesting way to preface the exhibit, highlighting the importance of light and its corresponding wavelength, when we typically imagine color as distinguishable by pigment.
Light, however, has a different effect.
When looking at computers, for example, we see the RGB model, which uses red, green, and blue light to produce a broad array of colors. “I always wondered, how do you get yellow from red, green and blue? But look, you mix the green and red and you get yellow,” Davis says. If you were to mix green and red paint, however, you would get brown.
A wall is displayed that demonstrates how you can play with light to create different colors, with kids and adults alike discovering and having fun.
Moving forward, we begin to look at the creation of color in the form of pigments and dyes. An interactive display shows how you can create an indigo dye, perhaps, with the use of leaves.
The exhibit recounts the tale of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who went into debt through his love of a particularly brilliant deep-blue color pigment known as Ultramarine Blue.
As we go deeper into the world of color, we observe a stag beetle, whose appearance is determined not by its pigment, but by its structure. In other words, the reflection of light off of its complex physical structure, or microstructure, gives the appearance of a wide range of colors, rainbow to the human eye.
Jason Cryan, executive director of NHMU, points to a concept known as aposematic coloration, seen in insects as well as other organisms, which is essential to many species’ survival and can be described as “warning coloration.”
This concept illustrates why humans, as well as other organisms, have an innate, instinctual fear of bright-colored creatures. It’s why a spider with orange, striped legs, or a red hourglass on its abdomen, can illicit the nervous system reaction known commonly as “goosebumps.”
Aposematic coloration was developed throughout evolution to warn of defense mechanisms, such as toxic venom, foul taste, or aggressive behavior.
In other words, “Don’t mess with me.”
The exhibit hosts three wildly vivid poison dart frogs, one red, one blue, and one yellow, as one of nature’s most exciting examples of aposematic coloration. Cryan points out that other organisms will even mimic the poisonous creatures, advertising bright colors despite having no toxic defense mechanism themselves.
In contrast, Cryan notes that other organisms use color for the exact opposite effect, to be as invisible as possible through camouflage.
But color isn’t only used to deter predators, it can also be used to attract mates. In looking at damselflies, in the same group as dragonflies, female Australian damselflies are blue until they are ready to mate. Then, these creatures turn green, sometimes in less than 24 hours, signifying readiness and helping young females to avoid harassment by males until they are sexually mature.
Another room, dubbed “The Red Room,” shows how color evokes feeling, and how different cultures have used color in association with emotion. For example, we may associate red with the feeling of anger, poor performance, or emergencies. You may see a poor test score written in red, an angry emoji colored in red, or a fire truck painted red.
“Blood is red, so that might be an evolutionary reason for why we have that association,” Davis says.
But red holds a different significance in human history, as red ochre, a natural clay earth pigment and one of the oldest pigments in the world, was used in the prehistoric art of cave paintings that exists around the world.
The earliest example, found in South Africa, dates back 73,000 years.
Another example shown here is what is called cochineal dyes, which have commonly and historically been used as a food additive. So instead of an artificial red dye, you may see cochineal dye, an organic option, in your yogurt.
“Cochineal dyes all originated from cochineal insects, which are basically scale insects. In this particular group, the males, when you dry them, powderize them, and pulverize them, they create these vibrant pigments and dyes,” Cryan says.
While we, as humans, try to recreate the brilliant colors found in nature, in flowers, for example, those colors are not just meant for our viewing pleasure.
“Pollinators see those flowers very differently, so if you were to shine a UV light on flowers, you’ll see a completely different pattern. It’s almost like a little landing strip for pollinators,” Cryan says.
Towards the end of the exhibit, you can see a locally specialized display, designed by Davis, showing Utah’s color spectrum across a variety of sciences.
Did you ever expect to find a purple vertebrae?
Fossils take in minerals from the environment, oxidizing and creating beautiful, unexpected colors.
And just ahead, the exhibit boasts a surprisingly interactive light wall, where you can see your movements recorded and displayed on the wall.
Lastly, we see a number of human portraits, each displaying the Pantone, or, the highly specific color determined by a universal language of color, extracted from pixels of each individual’s skin tone. The display shows how much we vary in skin tone within race, and how the concept of race can be interpreted as non-existent, with every person having their own individual skin tone within a huge spectrum of color.
“People tend to think of races, and this is a great illustration of the fact that there is no biological basis for race. Human skin tone is on a spectrum, and there are no defined boundaries between races,” Cryan says.
The exhibit presents something for everybody: science, culture, history, visual amazement, and a little fun.
Cryan, who has a Ph.D. in entomology, the study of insects, specializes in a suborder of insects known as Auchenorrhyncha, which consists of insects like cicadas, leafhoppers, treehoppers, planthoppers, and spittlebugs.
He looks at these creatures in the context of millions of years of selection in nature, or evolutionary development, driving organisms to look a certain way, and have a certain color or structure. “For me, it’s endlessly fascinating, things that structurally look like other things, parts of plants, thorns, that’s amazing,” Cryan says.
Davis says that the interactive, immersive aspect of the exhibit is something she really enjoys, and Cyran notes that the fun that kids are having there is actually learning. “This is the kind of engagement that we really love to see, where people are joyous to be here,” Cryan says. “It’s a chance to reflect on something we take for granted every day. We all have color in our lives,” Davis adds.
They both agree that their favorite color is green: the color of life, of abundance.
As part of the University of Utah, NHMU’s collections rank among the largest and most comprehensive in the Western United States, including in the fields of paleontology, anthropology, entomology, vertebrate zoology, mineralogy, botany, and malacology.
“The Nature of Color” exhibit is available at NHMU through August 14, 2022.