An artist, birder, and Walker staffer, Abigail Anderson is guest curator of Open Laboratory at June’s Free First Saturday. Here, she talks about citizen science, the value of observation, and what inspired her to organize a day of activities based around the myriad intersections of science, nature, and art.
Last summer you had a project in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden called Open Phenology. So first, what does “phenology” mean?
It is a branch of science that studies the timing of life cycle events, especially as they are tied to the changing seasons. I observed and tracked natural phenomena, such as migrating warblers, wispy cottonwood tree seeds floating in the air, or the waxing and waning chorus of cicadas, as they unfolded all around the Walker campus.
How can a lot of people do phenology in just one day—like during Free First Saturday, for example?
I like to say that phenology requires constant vigilance. It’s about visiting a place every day to see what makes the place different today than it was yesterday. For my part at Open Laboratory, I’m hoping that kids get excited about this challenge and take it with them when the day is done. Maybe it starts with an impressive new vocabulary word. And from there, it leads to an inquisitive state of mind and sharing their discoveries with the people in their lives. When we spend time observing nature, we become aware of how everything is interconnected. And being aware of these interconnections is especially empowering for kids because it motivated them to ask more questions and get invested in their investigations.
So what is the connection between citizen science and art?
I once heard an artist remark that art and science are both fields that generate knowledge. Especially with contemporary art, there’s an emphasis on posing questions and investigating ideas. It’s a speculative endeavor motivated by the possibility of discovery—like science.
What’s the appeal of citizen science?
It’s exciting to take science out of the laboratory and integrate it into our daily lives. People become invested when they become investigators! This type of science can mobilize neighborhoods, spread awareness, and build advocacy for issues beyond the professional scientific community.
After experiencing Open Laboratory, what do you hope people take away at the end of the day?
I hope that many are surprised by the abundance and diversity of nature in an urban setting, or that they discover curiosity is worth celebrating in and of itself. And whether they’re onlookers or active participants, they are the “citizens” in citizen science—after all, the subject of science is nothing less than the world we all share.
Can families with little or no science background still enjoy Open Laboratory?
Yes, of course! That’s exactly what it’s about: citizens learning alongside scientists. The day’s activities will get parents and kids asking questions and building knowledge together. Experts from the Science Museum of Minnesota will be in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with microscopes to help families examine, observe, and document findings in the garden. And be sure to visit the pond near Spoonbridge and Cherry where a naturalist from Westwood Hills Nature Center will help families identify critters living in and near the water.
How can families use citizen science after Open Laboratory?
Carry on the curiosity and get exciting about noticing natural phenomena in your daily lives. If families are interested in participating in a citizen science project, I recommend getting online and checking out SciStarter or Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Citizen Science Central. Choose a project and start being citizen scientists!
What kind of animals can visitors spot in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden?
If I were you, I’d start by listening. Try standing still with your eyes closed and listening to bird sounds coming from all around. Birds commonly seen in the Sculpture Garden include Mourning Doves, American Robins, and Common Grackles. Challenge yourself to recognize these birds by the sounds they make. Train your ears using the recordings on AllAboutBirds.org. Listen to Mourning Doves here, American Robins here, and Common Grackles here. Keep your eyes trained on the low walls built around the Garden’s four courtyards – that’s where you’ll see Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels going in and out of their burrows. Lastly, water is an essential part of animal habitat, so I recommend a slow stroll around the pond. There you might see dragonflies, butterflies, water striders, tadpoles, and ducks, for example.
What kinds of plants can visitors expect to see?
Start with the Linden trees that shade the grande allée – the path at the Garden’s entrance with a view of Spoonbridge and Cherry in the distance. These trees have tiny pale green flowers that are fragrant once the blooms open. If you find Dan Graham’s sculpture titled Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth, notice how the artist used plants to make a kind of wall. The plant used here is arborvitae and it is very common in landscaping (look around you). This plant has a sweet, pine scent – can you smell it? If you get to the far north edge of the Garden, walk through the Arbor to find nasturtium, clematis, and more.