A Marriage of Art and Science

The University of South Carolina’s new Natural History Collection



Robert Smith carefully unwraps works of art from the 16th to the 19th centuries, part of the Arader Collection.

Photography by Robert Clark

Tom McNally makes a sudden beeline across the room, straight for a row of cardboard boxes neatly lined and propped against a glass wall.

“Let’s do something fun,” he says, the excitement in his voice matching his quick pace across the floor of The University of South Carolina’s Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

He opens a box and unravels a few layers of bubble wrap to reveal a print of a Lady Banks rose. Several shades of color give depth to the illustration, highlighting the flower’s intricately replicated petals, long winding stem and green leaves. Even through protective Mylar covering, the print’s paper – with its subtle texture, antique off-white color and brown weathered edges – hints at the value and age of the piece.

“This is a 19th century print,” the dean of the University Libraries says, placing it on a table lined with scores of maps and other illustrations. “We do this every day. Every day is like Christmas.”

It’s not an exaggeration. For weeks, gifts of rare and valuable natural history watercolors, lithographs, woodcuts, maps and other works from the 16th through 19th centuries have been delivered to the university as part of a $30 million donation by pre-eminent historic map and artwork collector W. Graham Arader, III. Officials estimate the new collection eventually will include approximately 15,000 pieces, including works by John James Audubon and other prominent ornithologists, naturalists and illustrators.

These antiquities will not be locked away or confined to glass enclosures, school officials say. Per the request of Graham, the artwork will be displayed in buildings all over campus and incorporated into undergraduate curriculum.
“Graham’s request was, ‘Don’t take my stuff and put it on a shelf where no one will see it,’” Tom says. “He wants to put it in classrooms. He wants to put it in hallways. He wants to put it in students’ hands. This is about the students and the faculty … and it’s about how it’s going to be used.”

University staff are working quickly to catalogue the materials, and some of the collection’s pieces will be in classrooms and seen around campus as early as this fall. From environmental studies and European history to business and art courses, curriculum is being created to incorporate the collection and the important topics it raises, school officials say.

“It is fascinating to see how our ancestors mapped their environment and looked at the world around them. That’s what makes these pieces incredibly valuable,” says Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.  “The Arader collection gives students a historical perspective on what our ancestors knew of the world and how they represented what they discovered.”

USC President Harris Pastides says, “We are immensely grateful to Graham Arader for donating his exquisite collection to the university. Mr. Arader believes that when students live and study near great works of art, great learning will take place. Our appreciation cannot be overstated.”

The Merger of Art and Science
Graham, by his own admission, is obsessed with maps, and his passion started early in life, enduring today even as he continues to expand six galleries and a personal collection worth more than $600 million.

In recent years, his attention has turned to philanthropy – specifically, donating natural history-related materials – and the thrill that comes from being face to face with an original work. He says the reasons for his generosity come down to several key experiences such as his father’s love of antique map collecting, his undergraduate studies at Yale University where he honed his skills as a map dealer, and a note he read in a book from the collection of Laurance Rockefeller.

“I opened the book and inside the cover was written the inscription: ‘For Larry, on your eighth birthday. Hope this gives you an appreciation for conservation. Love, Daddy,’” says Graham. “I thought to myself at the time … it would be wrong for me to buy this book because it could have been the spark that turned this young man into a great conservationist.”

Graham continues, “Then five or six years later, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, why can’t everybody see stuff like this? Why does it have to be a Rockefeller? Why can’t it be someone from a less privileged background who doesn’t know about these things, but who senses when they drive around that they’re not seeing as many trees?’ Maybe this will make them think a little bit about the natural world.”

That eventually led to an email to Tom expressing interest in donating a large portion of his natural history collection to USC. After a few meetings, the University Libraries, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Graham Arader Galleries formed a collaboration.

“The motivation has been to introduce the illustration of the natural world,” Graham says. “Viewers can see the art and how the art was made. They can see the process of lithography, original watercolor, wood cutting, copper engraving, many different styles of transferring an idea onto a piece of paper or canvas. They learn about history and can understand it in a much more exciting way than they would if they didn’t have that artwork to look at.”

Graham has also donated to other universities, including University of Florida, University of Georgia, Northeastern University, Franklin College, Prescott College, University of California at Irvine and others. But his largest donation to the University of South Carolina places it in the top five for natural world illustrations, Graham estimates.

He chose USC because he was impressed with the campus and students. He was a guest lecturer at the university and donated $2 million worth of materials in 2011. But he said it was his meeting with school officials that made him feel confident that the university would use the collection to educate, excite and inspire students.

Tom says, “For Graham, this is really the synthesis of art and science. It is art used to teach science. A map is a work of art, a natural history print is a work of art. But within their time, they were artwork done for science … so it really was the merger of the two fields.”

Putting the Materials in the Hands of Students
A few floors beneath the main levels of Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library in a temperature-controlled secured room, row upon row of Graham’s natural history prints await cataloging. Dozens arrive almost daily, the quantity so large that catalogers will be busy far into the future.

“The volume and scope of the collection are huge,” says Elizabeth Sudduth, director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. “Every box has to be inventoried upon receipt as we account for each item from receipt to cataloging. It’s an extraordinary gift, something that only someone in the field as long as Graham would be able to do.”

Staff working to catalog items are among the first to see the prints and research their links to history and the modern world. The more information catalogers initially include in the record, the better use students and faculty will get out of the collection, Elizabeth says.

Among the many prints they’ve pored over are illustrations of animals and plants, many of them labeling plant parts and giving details on animals. A bird print by 19th century English ornithologist and bird artist John Gould are among the donated items. Variations of gray are used to give a lifelike quality to the birds’ feathers, beaks, webbed feet and habitats. There are also prints of maps to catalog along with research on the history surrounding the artwork. These prints of animals, plants and maps offered many Europeans a first glimpse of the New World, and served as both educational tools and art. University officials hope the items will be a way for students, faculty and catalogers to connect the past and the present.

“It’s interesting because you can really see history unfold,” says Rob Smith, a cataloger working on the Arader Collection. “Asia isn’t like this anymore. The landscape has changed and the political boundaries have changed.”

The information that catalogers compile will aid in the digitalization of the collection. The Irvin Department’s track record of cataloging large collections upon receipt and an in-house digital collections unit were part of the appeal leading Graham to donate his collection.

“The Hollings Library is truly a state-of-the-art special collections library,” says Elizabeth. “This is a secure and stable environment for our collections. Our materials are stored in the vault at 60 degrees with 40 percent humidity. Security, environmental control, the technology to facilitate use and a commitment to access will help put the materials in the hands of students and faculty.”

It’s also about acquiring more collections for the University Libraries, whose holdings already include 150,000 items and more than 50 archival collections ranging from early medieval manuscripts and incunabula to modern literature and historical scientific works.

While studying a few prints from the Arader collection in mid-July, Elizabeth abruptly pauses to take a quick phone call and is visibly excited. It is someone she had been trying to contact, and the caller hints at making a significant donation to the university’s collections department.

“Through the Arader collection, we’ve come to the attention of other donors,” she says. “One major gift often brings another.”

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