The X Factor

Eugerres plumieri (striped mojarra) from the X-Ray Vision exhibition, which features 40 prints from the Smithsonian’s collection of fish radiographs.

Eugerres plumieri (striped mojarra) from the X-Ray Vision exhibition, which features 40 prints from the Smithsonian’s collection of fish radiographs. (Sandra J. Raredon, Division of Fishes, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

Radiographs of fish specimens, with their stark, stunning beauty, encourage viewers to think about a routine scientific tool in a new way. The black-and-white X-ray prints featured in X-Ray Vision: Fish Inside Out leave visitors with a different view of aquatic life, one inhabited by art and science.

The prints are from the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fishes, the largest and most diverse collection of fish species in the world, with more than 4 million specimens. Scientists worldwide use this collection, which was started in the mid-19th century.

Before 1895 the only way scientists could study the skeleton and internal biology of specimens was through dissection, a time-intensive process that destroyed the animal. The discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen that year revolutionized their work. Curators and scientists working with such natural-history collections as the Smithsonian’s were early adopters of the new X-ray technology because it did not destroy the fish’s skeleton. 

The impact of X-ray technology is obvious in these images. An image such as that of the 1904 specimen of Raja montereyensis (Monterey skate) reveals an incredibly delicate skeleton. Surprising details emerge as well, such as the last meal of the Ogcocephalus corniger (batfish).

Recognizing the visual impact of the radiographs, the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service collaborated to create a traveling exhibition that could showcase not only the sciences of ichthyology and radiography but also the beauty, diversity, and intricate patterns the images revealed. Co-curated by Lynne Parenti, curator of fishes at the National Museum of Natural History, X-Ray Vision features 40 exquisite digital prints. The radiographs were taken by museum specialist and exhibit co-curator Sandra Raredon, who has worked with the collection for more than 25 years and has radiographed over 11,000 fish specimens. Raredon, who came up with the exhibition’s subtitle “Fish Inside Out,” told Smithsonian magazine, “When I first started x-raying, I saw the artistry.”

Interpretive panels explain the radiographic process as well as the importance of the study of fish skeletons, fins, and teeth for determining species and evolutionary development. For example, when scientists think they have found a new species, they often look to the skeleton to determine whether it is in fact a new discovery. Such variations as the number of vertebrae help them make their determinations. Other interpretive panels detail how the X-rays reveal fish diversity and how scientific names like genus and species are established. 

The exhibition will be on the road through at least 2015 and travels to Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and Indiana before landing at CHF. Future stops include the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona. The Museum at CHF will host X-Ray Vision from December 2012 through June 2013.