School of Art + Art History Associate Professor Sean Miller joined forces with Brandon Ballengée, an artist and biologist from Louisiana State University, to create The Crude Life Portable Biodiversity Museum for the Gulf of Mexico. This expansive project, funded by a National Academies Keck Grant, is a portable museum experience is traveling the country educating people on Gulf biodiversity and the environmental impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the worst recorded marine petrochemical spill in history,” Miller said. “The impacts are still being researched. Ballengée has noted that fourteen different types of fish have not been seen in the Gulf since the spill. Deepwater Horizon impacted plants, wildlife and people's livelihoods throughout the region.”
Miller’s contributions to Crude Life include co-designing the pop-up museum, original photography, paintings, inflatable art, sculptures, custom inlaid wood displays and co-curating specimens with Ballengée. Crude Life’s vast collections include turtle shells, animal skulls, eggshells and illustrations that reveal ecological issues in the Gulf.
The museum is housed in a series of old sea trunks retrofitted with polished wood interiors to showcase the numerous specimens and objects. Miller fashioned the trunk interiors with recycled wood from Florida and Louisiana and trees that fell during Hurricane Irma. Each trunk addresses a specific area of study—from birds to reptiles.
Other Crude Life collaborators incude Aurore Ballengée, Prosanta Chakbarty, Ben Dubansky, Suzanne Fredericq, Kevin Mahoney, Rachel Mayeri, Monique Verdin and Link Morgan.
Rather than forging a partnership of arts and sciences, Crude Life reminds us of their ongoing historical relationship. Pulling out an illustration of a cabinet of curiosities, Miller explains that before museums it was not uncommon for collectors to display art alongside natural oddities and other scientific specimens.
Crude Life has primarily exhibited in Louisiana, whereby Miller and the other contributors sit with community members to discuss the collection. The participants are encouraged to examine, touch and question what they see.
“In art there’s social practice and in science there’s public outreach, and these two things can dovetail together,” Miller said.
“Our unconventional museum-on-the-move seeks to activate each audience's sense of curiosity and wonder by putting the hands-on collection into a state of play, learning and discovery.”
As Crude Life continues to exhibit, Miller is hard at work on Drifting Cabinets, a sister project to tour Florida. The exhibition is on view at the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville from Sept. 1 to Sept. 30, 2018 and will be on view at the Atlantic Center for the Arts Harris House in New Smyrna Beach from Oct. 9 to Oct. 27, 2018. Drifting Cabinets includes work from Miller as well as from artists Chip Lord, Kristin Lucas, Kevin Mahoney, Dan Stepp, Bethany Taylor, Leah Floyd and Cristina Molina. Scientists involved in the exhibition include Suzanne Fredericq, Verity Mathis, Chase Pirtle, Joseph Ryan, Lisa Anne Taylor and Thomas A. Webber. Support for Drifting Cabinets includes the NSF Grant (Dr. Suzanne Fredericq, P-I), Ashton Biological Preserve, University of Florida College of the Arts, Lubee Bat Conservancy, Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Fine, Farkash & Parlapiano.
“Anyone living in the Gulf region can attest to the wondrous plants and wildlife that exist here,” Miller said. “So Crude Life really is a study, a mournful display and an awe-inspiring celebration of what has occurred and is currently unfolding all around us in the Gulf.”