The Art and Science of Numbers

“La science du nombre devient la clef de toute culture scientifique,” prefaces an article by then-director, Robert T. Hatt, in the May 1966 Cranbrook Institute of Science newsletter. Roughly translated – the science of numbers becomes the key to any scientific culture – an idea promoted through a long-term exhibition at the Institute, titled Mathematics Emporium.

Sponsored by International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), the exhibition was a replacement for the World of Numbers, which was a mathematics-focused exhibition on display at the Institute from 1961-1966. The goal of the Mathematics Emporium was to discover the character of mathematics or as Dr. Hatt explained, “what mathematics is all about.”

Invitation to preview the Mathematics Emporium exhibition, Apr 1966.

The exhibition was created by well-known designer, Gordon Ashby, who previously worked with Charles and Ray Eames.  During Ashby’s tenure with the Eames Office, he worked on the Mathematica exhibition (also sponsored by IBM) for the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles (now the California Science Center) and later for the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair (1964/1965). For the Cranbrook exhibition, Ashby worked in consultation with several mathematics teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area to design displays about geometry, calculus, the properties of space, the giving of form to algebraic equations, and the measurement of motion and change.

Letter from Ashby to Hatt, Feb 1966.

Ashby’s goal with the Mathematics Emporium was to depict mathematical subjects in an imaginative way to stimulate the curiosity of visitors and encourage further investigation. The exhibition was enclosed in an 18-foot modular showcase that contained a graphic panel with sketches or diagrams, as well as a collection of thirteen small displays. Ashby said he hoped to create an exhibition “that would make mathematics ‘look-at-able’ and bear repeated visits.”

Mathematics Emporium exhibition. Photograph by Harvey Croze, Apr 1966. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

The exhibition showcase was trimmed in gold-leaf and included photographs, mathematical limericks, and quotes by famous mathematicians. Within each display there were thought-provoking questions, such as “what has a can of baking powder to do with calculus?” and “which mathematical science sees a coffee cup and a doughnut as alike?” The Mathematics Emporium was very popular with visitors, and it remained a permanent exhibition in the Institute’s collections for more than 14 years.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

A Place Where Art and Science Meet

Some of my favorite blogs, such as My Modern Met, capture the connections between science and art. At Cranbrook, the intersection of these two worlds often occurs when I delve into a research request. I recently found myself in this happy place as I discovered information about the Mary Soper Pope Memorial award, while researching botanist Emma Lucy Braun. Cranbrook Institute of Science awarded the medal to Braun in 1952.

First award of the Mary Soper Pope Memorial medal, 1946.

First award of the Mary Soper Pope Memorial medal, 1946. From L-R: Marshall Fredericks, Gustavus D. Pope, George Booth, Franz Verdoorn (recipient), Robert R. McMath, and Robert T. Hatt. Photographer, Harvey Croze.

Mary Soper Pope (1872-1940) was the wife of Gustavus Debrille Pope (1873-1952). Gustavus Pope, a Detroit manufacturer and humanitarian, was among many things the director of the Detroit Museum of Art, president of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, a Cranbrook Foundation Board of Trustees charter member, and a board member of both the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Institute of Science.

In 1946, the Trustees of the Institute announced the foundation of the Mary Soper Pope Memorial medal to be granted as often as the Board deemed desirable for “noteworthy and distinguished accomplishment in the field of plant sciences.” The award was a memorial to Mary Soper Pope as a tribute to her “thoughtful nature, her quiet yet inquiring spirit, and her constant pleasure in the beauty of growing things.” The Institute Trustees commissioned sculptor Marshall Fredericks (1908-1998) to design the medal. Fredericks taught at Kingswood School and Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1932 until he enlisted in the armed forces in 1942. According to correspondence in the Cranbrook Institute of Science Director’s Papers, this was Fredericks’ first commission since his return from service as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Forces.

I love Fredericks’ design. On the obverse, the medal bears the figure of a woman holding a delicate seedling before the eyes of a child. The reverse is a profusion of vegetal growth and in it a chameleon.

Marshall Fredericks sketches

Marsall Fredericks sketches, ca 1946.

The 3” diameter medals were cast in bronze by the Medallic Art Company in New York. The Committee of the Mary Soper Pope Memorial medal agreed on the following principles: 1) the medal should be given for noteworthy and distinguished accomplishments in plant science, 2) the medal may be given in any field of plant science, 3) the medal should be given in different fields of plant science, 4) the medal should be given without limitation (nationality, race, creed, and academic career or position), and 5) the medal is to be given at any point in a person’s career.

Mary Soper Pope Memorial Award

Mary Soper Pope Memorial Award. (T.2014.1.19)

With these principles in mind, the Institute awarded the medal to seventeen scientists between 1946-1970, including botanist Emma Lucy Braun, ecologist William Vogt, and soil scientist, Edgar T. Wherry. While I enjoyed the initial research about Braun that led me to reading about this award, I loved following the Detroit and Cranbrook connections between art and science.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

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