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The confluence of science and art: Museum hosts Genetic Ancestry portraits

RALEIGH — Ever wonder where your ancestors came from? And not just the past couple hundred years or so. But way back – say 50,000 years? Multimedia artist Lynn Fellman saw a chance to find out in 2005, when National Geographic’s Genographic Project offered mitochondrial DNA testing kits to the public. Seeing her own results ultimately inspired Fellman to take a closer look not only at herself, but at a larger community.

The result? “Genetic Ancestry: We Are All Connected,” a new exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, combines DNA portraits and companion storyboards that show diverse individuals connected across continents and time. One dozen large prints (each measuring 36x48 inches) can be seen on the second floor bridge joining the Museum’s main building and its Nature Research Center beginning June 19 and through the end of July.

“Genetic Ancestry” was originally commissioned in 2010 by the University of Minnesota for their Urban Research and Outreach Center. Located in North Minneapolis, the center was designed to serve the ethnically diverse Northside community. The center’s director, anthropologist Irma McClaurin, was looking for a unique way to engage neighborhood residents in the programs offered at the Center.

McClaurin was familiar with Fellman’s DNA portraits and how she used population genetics to visually connect an individual’s pre-historic ancestry with current time. After putting their heads together, Fellman proposed highlighting the diversity of the neighborhood by combining portraits, personal stories and explanations of genomic science. The exhibit would show and explain the stories of individuals, how they are connected through family and across continents through deep time.

Each participant met individually with Fellman in her art studio to begin the portrait process. She gave them DNA lab kits, explained how to take their DNA sample, and where to mail it for sequencing. When the data from the lab was available, Fellman reviewed with them their DNA results and preliminary sketches of their portrait. With an individual's data in hand, she proceeded to complete the portraits combing landscape and haplogroup (think of this as a large “family,” like the Vikings) paths with drawings of their face.

“Genetic Ancestry: We Are All Connected” has travelled to museums, science conferences and universities across the United States. The exhibit at the Museum coincides with the Evolution 2014 conference being held in the Raleigh Convention Center June 20-24.The portraits and storyboards were newly reprinted by the artist for the Museum show. Fellman appreciates the support from the Museum and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), Durham, North Carolina for installation of this exhibit.

Publish Date: 
Friday, June 6, 2014