Life Science Noteworthy

Chip Clark’s Iconic National Museum of Natural History Photos

Feather identification expert Roxie Laybourne surrounded by specimens from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's avian collection
Feather identification expert Roxie Laybourne surrounded by specimens from the SI NMNH avian collection Image by Chip Clark/SI NMNH

Chip Clark  joined the team at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (SI NMNH) in 1973 as a staff photographer. In addition to capturing high-speed images of flying insects, researchers in the field, and numerous specimen studies, Chip spent approximately 20 years creating a portfolio of meticulously composed photographs of the SI NMNH’s monumental collection.  

In an article detailing the story behind the photos, Carol Butler, assistant director of collections at SI NMNH recalls,

“[Clark] thought the collections were fabulous and he wanted to show the inner life of the museum and the richness of the collections.”

Each of the images was carefully composed by Chip and the curators; with the team shifting drawers around when necessary to achieve the right balance of color and form. The time commitment required for each image was substantial according to SI NMNH. The above photo of the avian collection, for instance, took 8 hours to prepare prior to shooting.

While the images have been around for several years and were included in the SI NMNH centennial exhibition in 2010-2011 shortly after Chip’s death in June 2010, they continue to generate interest from time to time when they emerge on platforms like Reddit or Instagram.

As Carol Butler aptly observed, “...they’re beautiful but they’re also an example of museum practice, collections management, and science. I think that’s why they appeal to so many people.

Stacks of wet scientific specimens preserved in jars at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History Department of Zoology.
The Department of Vertebrate Zoology’s wet collections of fish specimens preserved in alcohol, located at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
Image by Chip Clark/ SI NMNH
Photograph of entomology specimens arranged within one aisle of the Entomology Department compactor collection cabinets at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
A presentation of entomology specimens arranged within one aisle of the Entomology Department compactor collection cabinets at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Designed to illustrate the size and scope of the Entomology collection. May 9, 2006. Featured researchers: Dr. David Furth, Collections Manager; Dr. Ted Schultz, Research Entomologist; Dr. Jonathan Coddington, Senior Scientist; Patricia Gentili-Poole, Museum Technician.
Photo by Chip Clark/ SI NMNH
Mouse scientific specimens arranged carefully in drawers at the  Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History
Mice from the Department of Vertebrate Zoology’s mammals collections are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
Photo by Chip Clark/ SI NMNH
An assortment of mineral specimens  displayed in the storage vault known as the "Blue Room," at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History
An assortment of mineral specimens from the Department of Mineral Sciences’ collections are displayed in the storage vault known as the “Blue Room,” at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Mineral Sciences staff present are (left) Paul Pohwat, Collections Manager of Minerals, and (right) Russell Feather, Collections Manager of Gems.
Photo by Chip Clark/ SI NMNH
Invertebrate zoology specimens arranged in drawers at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History
Collections from the Department of Invertebrate Zoology are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Invertebrate Zoology Staff present: Paul Greenhall, Robert Hershler, Ellen Strong, Jerry Harasewych, and Linda Cole.
Photo by Chip Clark/ SI NMNH
Botanical collections are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History storage facilities.
Botanical collections are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Botany staff present are Dr. David Bruce Lellinger (left, front), Carol Kellof (right, middle), and Rusty Russell (left, back).
Photo by Chip Clark/ SI NMNH
Photo of specimens from the paleontology collection in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
A view of one part of the Paleontology collection in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, arranged by the addition of representative specimens from other parts of the three floors of fossils in the East Wing. Staff: Dr. Scott Wing, Chairman of the Department of Paleontology.
Photo by Chip Clark/ SI NMNH
Smithsonian botanists displaying algae specimens, including coraline algae, wet specimens and the usual herbarium sheets
The Botany Department Herbarium at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, displaying algae specimens, including coraline algae, wet specimens and the usual herbarium sheets. Featured researchers: Dr. James Norris (right, front), his research assistant Bob Sims (left, front), and associate researcher, Katie Norris (left, back).
Photo by Chip Clark/ SI NMNH
Anthropological collections on display in Pod 4 at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Support Center (MSC)
Anthropological collections on display in Pod 4 (designed to house oversized objects) at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center (MSC), located in Suitland, Maryland. Anthropology collections staff present. Panoramic image #7 of 7 at 26mm focal length.
Photo by Chip Clark/ SI NMNH

This post was updated from an earlier version published in 2016.

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