Biocreativity on the Road: Turtles + Architecture at the Tennessee Aquarium

A recent trip to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga not only left me in awe of the power of aquariums, but I was also pleasantly surprised to come across two biocreative exhibits to feature on the blog! If you’ve never been to the Tennessee Aquarium, go right now! The focus on local watersheds, flora and fauna was beyond impressive. The diversity of reptiles and amphibians on exhibit was also beyond compare with any other aquarium I’ve visited.

The first of the two biocreative exhibits I visited was Turtles: Nature’s Living Sculptures—Architecture in Bone, curated by Dave Collins who is also Curator of Forests at the Tennessee Aquarium. The second of the two exhibits – Jellies: Living Art – will be the subject of an upcoming post. I wish I had better photos to share with you, but I was limited to photography with my phone (with, unfortunately, no flash). But nevertheless, I think you’ll be able to tell how great this exhibit is!

"The turtle shell is a masterpiece of architecture. Like a Gothic cathedral, the domed shell provides maximum space within and the strength to withstand the ages."

So, what do turtles and architecture have in common? Well, really, quite a lot! Arches, buttresses, geodesic domes, keystones…just to name a few. Several specimens of turtle shell were on exhibit alongside illustrations of these architectural elements, with really quite eloquent accompanying text.

"Neural bones are the "keystones" of the turtle shell. As in a Roman arch, downward pressure is distributed through these key elements, strengthening the overall structure." Turtle shell displayed: South African Bowsprit Tortoise (Chersina angulata;

"The flying buttresses of a cathedral strengthen its walls to support the massive weight of its towering cupolas above. In the moving fortress of a turtle shell, these buttresses are brought inside the arch." Turtle shell displayed: Painted Terrapin (Callagur borneoensis;

The exhibit featured live specimens of some of the world’s most beautiful and unusual turtle species – many of which I only knew from my herpetology books – including the South American Leaf-Headed Turtle or Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriatus) which has evolved to look like leaf litter and debris and the African Pancake Tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri) which can squeeze into incredibly tight spaces! To my delight, there was also a little homage to turtle sculpture from around the world (again, please forgive my poor little phone pics).

Another nice touch in this exhibit was the addition of live Tennessee music by incredible acoustic musician and Aquarium employee Matt Downer. I enjoyed visiting with him, discussing the local music scene (since I am from Austin, after all!) and listening to his banjo play!

This exhibit got me wondering about other ways turtles and architecture have been combined to teach, inform and explore the world we live in. Here are just a few fun examples:

Compilation of images from a University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design Science and Planning assignment.

  • Canadian artist Brian Jungen created this impressive eco-art piece called Carapace, made from industrial trash and recycling bins. If you like this, be sure to check out his hanging mobile of animals made of luggage, 2008’s crux.
Brian Jungen's 'Carapace' 2009 made from industrial waste bins, displayed at the Museum of the American Indian

Brian Jungen's 'Carapace'. 2009. Made from industrial waste bins, displayed at the Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

  • Ceramic artist John Menzel (who also has a degree in biology) creates these amazing life-like turtle carapaces in his ceramics studio (and I hope he will soon be featured in the ECO Art + Science Series).

“I have always been very interested in turtles, which led me to biology as a major in college, but while in college I took a ceramics course and of course I became addicted once I combined turtles and clay. I begin with a ball of clay and then slowly and methodically move the clay to create a vessel which resembles a turtle (or tortoise) shell with a complementary reflection of the lines of the turtle shell pattern on the inside. In this way I can show the impressive beauty of the turtles I adore on the outside and on the inside, show the simple beauty of the turtle shell pattern amplified by the effect of glaze over the pits and ridges.” -John Menzel

All-in-all, I am a big fan of turtle art in any form, including just the turtles themselves. This little guy – the Four Eyed Turtle (Sacalia quadriocellata) – was also on display at the Tennessee Aquarium, and is quite the work of art himself!

And, if you’re a sucker for perhaps the cutest of all baby animals – turtles – then I’ll leave you with this fun video about baby Four-Eyed Turtles from the Tennessee Aquarium. But better yet…go see them for yourselves!

Many thanks to the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute for my very fun trip to the aquarium!


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