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A Love Affair with the Art of Nature

In 1908, Ellen Browning Scripps commissioned Albert Valentien, a noted artist who had worked for Rookwood pottery, to create a painted atlas of the wildflowers of California. Miss Scripps’ original vision was to publish the collection of these paintings. Over the next ten years, Mr. Valentien traveled the length and breadth of California, collecting specimens and transforming them through watercolor and gouache into exquisite scientific illustrations. Valentien’s 1,094 paintings are noteworthy for many reasons, but in the words of the director of the Museum’s Research Library, Margaret “Margi” Dykens, “far beyond just being accurate renderings of each species, they are amazingly organic and capture the living essence of the plant.” In 1933, following Miss Scripps’ passing, the Museum received the full collection through her estate.

Fast forward to the 1990s, and a docent class is touring the Library as part of their extensive training program. As with every Library tour, Margi diligently brought out a few of the Valentiens as indicative of the rare and wonderful collections housed in the Museum’s Library special collections. At that time, financial restrictions found the collection languishing in an off-gassing wood cabinet, bereft of any conservation measures. The only positive result of their storage was that they had been left essentially undisturbed for more than 60 years.

After Margi described the history of the Valentien collection to the docent class, one of the students asked why these amazing works of art and science were not on display for the public. Margi explained the financial requirements to get the paintings evaluated by a conservator, stabilized, and photographed, all of which would have to happen before any of the paintings could safely be displayed. The docent-in-training replied, “I think my husband and I can help with this.” Next thing, Eleanor and Jerry Navarra had generously provided the necessary funding to protect, preserve, and pave the way for the exhibition of the Valentien Collection.

These initial, critical steps, led to additional support from the Navarras and a partnership with The Irvine Museum, to develop a traveling exhibition of the Valentiens in 2004. This was paired with the publication of a history of the collection and a catalogue for the exhibition. Plant Portraits: the California Legacy of A.R. Valentien premiered here at the Museum and traveled to 10 institutions over five years.

Jerry, who was then owner, president, and CEO of Jerome’s Furniture and is now chairman of the board, was keen to create products featuring the Valentiens, the sale of which would benefit the Museum. That led to seed funding to develop a suite of products available through our Museum store. Meanwhile, Eleanor Navarra had joined the Museum board, advancing to serve as Chair from 2006 to 2009. Today, Jerry has assumed Eleanor’s seat on the board.

It was at a board meeting when the idea of opening the Museum’s Library for better public access was first discussed. President and CEO Mick Hager, on the way back from a Leadership Circle trip to the Huntington Library’s exhibition on the history of science, thought to himself, “we can do that—we have abundant and incredible examples of the history of science in our own Library collections.” With that, the seed for the Library renovation and expansion was sown along with its inspiration, the permanent exhibition Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science. Within a year, the Navarras, moved by the description and goals for the exhibition, came forward with the lead gift to the Library project. In early summer 2016, the Museum will proudly dedicate the Eleanor and Jerome Navarra Special Collections Gallery, home to Extraordinary Ideas, which will feature a permanent Valentien gallery—approximately 15 will be featured at one time and they will be rotated seasonally.

“Science is a conversation carried forward by curiosity, art, language, imagination, and the drive to look closely and ask questions. And anyone with these tools can contribute.”

--Senior Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly

Posted by The Nat.

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