Beneath an Ancient Sea: Oamaru and the Glass Archive

Photograph by Wayne Barrar

A photographic exhibition by NZ photographer Wayne Barrar.
9 July to 4 September 2016

For diatomists, Oamaru was the world’s “coolest” town in the 1880s. Famed for the richness of its diatomite deposits, this unassuming white chalky rock has been shipped to scientists and enthusiasts all over the world from sites around Oamaru: Flume Gully, Cormacks Siding, Allan’s Farm, Williams Bluff and Troublesome Gully, just to name a few.

Diatomite is one of Oamaru’s prehistoric jewels. Formed in the Eocene era, 35 million years ago when the area was under the sea, these deposits contain microscopic fossilised organisms: radiolarians (single-celled animals), sponge spicules and diatoms (single celled algae).

The exhibition - Beneath an Ancient Sea: Oamaru and the Glass Archive - explores the story of diatomite visually. Forrester Gallery Director Jane Macknight says: “Victorian era Scientists and enthusiasts would extract the microscopic fossils found in the diatomite and display them in exquisite arrangements on glass slides. Viewed under a microscope these tiny fossils reveal an extraordinary hidden world”.

Internationally renowned NZ Photographer Wayne Barrar has created this exhibition which consists of a selection of 40 photographic prints: large format colour prints and traditional Victorian-era handmade albumen prints. The photographs represent a selection of images from Museum diatomite collections around the world, many of which came from Oamaru.

As well as the photographs by Wayne Barrar the exhibition includes objects from the North Otago Museum collection. Museum Curator Chloe Searle says: “In the late 1800s North Otago Museum Curators Thomas Forrester and Harry De Lautour were at the centre of a global trade in diatomite. On display are some of these slides they made, the microscope they used and perhaps most fascinating of all, a packet labelled ‘rats whiskers’ which they must have used to move the microscopic fossils around the glass plate.”

Photographer Wayne Barrar says the exhibition title is largely conceptual reflecting diatom collections which: “involve dispersed glass microforms, glass microscope slides held in a variety of collections, and the glass optics of microscopes and cameras that make the invisible visible – a mega collection which is the product of science, art and commerce”.

Image credit: Photograph by Wayne Barrar

Frances Mcmillan