Edna Lawrence Nature Lab – Providence, Rhode Island - Atlas Obscura
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Providence, Rhode Island

Edna Lawrence Nature Lab

An unusual library of dead things at the Rhode Island School of Design.  

Libraries are integral to college life, but what if you got to check out a sable’s horn, rather than a Baruch Spinoza anthology? A zebra skull rather than a biochemistry textbook? This is the idea behind the Rhode Island School of Design’s Edna Lawrence Nature Lab. It’s a place where blowfish hang from the ceiling, Victorian mounted springbok horns hang from the doorway, and little treasures can be found tucked away in every corner.

Hidden away in a red brick building, the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab is an incredible merger of art, science, and history. RISD faculty member Edna W. Lawrence founded the Nature Lab in 1937 to introduce students to the beauty of nature’s forms, space, colors, textures, designs, and structures. 

Today, the Nature Lab is a true cabinet of curiosities, with a main hall full of dark wooden cabinets stuffed with dried plant specimens from all over the world. Vintage taxidermy animals (moose, deer, antelope, wild sheep, full body mounts of bobcat, black bear, and coyote, and an adorably cute tiny mouse deer) hang from the high walls, while turtle shells and puffer fish sit on top of the cabinets.

Connected to this main room sits a whitewashed two-story “bone room” featuring well-lit glass cabinets filled with bones and skulls from a wide array of animals. In this room, you can find skulls of lions, bears, cats, and wolves, a mounted hawk skeleton, eland horns, deer antlers, and gigantic whale bones. On the center table sit two massive African cape buffalo skulls, complete with gigantic black horns, and in the little alcove under the stairs (you’ll have to move the taxidermy tundra swan) sit the skulls of bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, cattle, and pilot whales, as well as boxes of vertebrae, teeth, and ribs from more than 30 species. Articulated human skeletons hang from metal pipe frames, ready to be checked out by anatomy and illustration students. The bone room carries its own little atmosphere, with its white brick walls trimmed with exposed pipe and old wood shelves and tables that give it an almost steampunk aesthetic.

There’s a small upstairs area, a walkway covering three sides of the bone room and accessible via stairs along the far wall, that houses whale ribs, dried plant material, anthropological artifacts (pottery, metalwork, and the like), as well as framed illustrations done by RISD students and faculty over the years (including some of Edna Lawrence’s own work). The Nature Lab also hosts a small collection of live animals (a corn snake, Peruvian tegus, rainforest toads in the main hall, wet tanks, with axolotl, jellyfish, and seahorses downstairs), all well cared for (and doted on) by RISD students and faculty alike.

Know Before You Go

See its website for its typical hours. Check the RISD academic schedule for hours and special events

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