Lessons in science outreach from New York City (Part 2) – Citizen Science in History!

At the Nicholas Roerich Museum
At the Nicholas Roerich Museum

My remaining activities in New York City centred chiefly around visiting the Nicholas Roerich Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said about the AMNH, but I would highly recommend a visit to the (free!) Nicholas Roerich Museum, for art that is quite unlike what we are used to seeing. Nicholas Roerich himself was an eclectic person whose interests and talents are rarefied commodities these days. He was a Russian artist, writer and thinker who travelled extensively throughout Asia and much of his artwork depicts pastiches of Himalayan landscapes, while drawing from Russian artistic traditions, producing a very unique oeuvre.

Me hanging out with some Roerich paintings

To me, Roerich’s genius lies beyond his artistic talents. This is already well-documented by each country he associated with (his homeland Russia; the US, where he lived for some time formed many important friendships and political ties; and India, where he lived during the Second World War until his death in 1947). The places where he travelled were among the interior parts of the Himalayas that were relatively understudied (and still remains understudied) by people with any formal education. By depicting the environment and geology of the Himalayas in his paintings in a fantastical yet vaguely realistic style, he procured further attention to these regions from geographers, geologists and archaeologists. For many people, Roerich’s paintings were among the first glimpses into the landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau and beyond.

What can we learn from Roerich’s artwork and his approach?

We know that in history, many explorers and scientists, particularly those associated with early Columbian voyages to the Americas were not at all formally trained in the scholastic realm of sciences. During the middle ages, science taught in European universities concerned themselves largely with pre-established theory dating back to Classical antiquity. The scope of empirical science (i.e. observation and experimentation) were rather limited. During the exploration of the New World, various kinds of lay scholars documented the geography, climate and biodiversity of the Americas, worlds away from European scholasticism, guided primarily by their observational faculties. This brought about the new norms in science that we see established today, in that it was guided by empiricism. On the other hand, we probably have never seen an age of mass participation in such high-profile citizen science and crowdsourcing since then!

Roerich seems to belong to the same class of citizen scientists that accompanied Columbus in his four voyages to the New World, notably, Oviedo, AcostaLópez de VelascoSahagún and many more. Although the politics of each of their discoveries are ripe with contention, we learn from them the lasting impact on knowledge and representation of science in visual and written forms that citizen science has, and how it often pioneered empirical investigation in understudied areas.

It may often seem that the contemporary world of scientific discourse is dominated by peer-reviewed publishing in reputable journals, let us not forget that in the history of science, it has frequently been people far removed from scholarly science who have pushed beyond the frontiers of contemporary knowledge.

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