They say that inspiration lives at 13 Waterman St. in Providence. Well, that’s not entirely true. Aside from a few ferns, some goldfish, and Pedro, the fire-bellied toad, most of the items at the Edna Law-rence Nature Lab are dead. But spend a few minutes browsing RISD’s repository for shells, seeds, skins, and skeletons and you’ll see why — dead or alive — the Nature Lab is one of Providence’s most stimulating settings.
“People have told me that the Nature Lab was the main reason why they picked RISD,” says Abigail Karp, the lab’s assistant curator, pointing out giant tortoise shells, a wall-mounted sailfish, and, her favorite, a Rhode Island-bred, taxidermy-preserved coyote. “For any artist or visual person, it’s an inspiring place.”
Karp explains that, unlike other art-school libraries or natural history museums, which can be finicky about patrons handling their collections, the Nature Lab has always been about hands-on access.
Students are encouraged to take down, touch, and even borrow (so long as they return it — “You just cannot get a tamarin skull anymore.”) items from the Lawrence Lab. Whether it’s a preserved butterfly, a stuffed platypus, or a human skull, she explains, “We really try to keep it as hands-on as possible.”
Located across from First Baptist Church on College Hill, the lab was founded in 1937 by Edna W. Lawrence, a RISD alum and longtime faculty member, who hoped “to open students’ eyes to the marvels of beauty in nature . . . of form, space, color, texture, design, and structure.” What began as a modest collection of natural knick-knacks has since grown to a nationally recognized collection boasting 80,000 speci-mens.
“Someone will call us and say, ‘I’ve got a box of shells,’ ” says Karp, explaining how the collection continues to grow. “Or people will have old taxidermy to give. The bear we have was very nicely do-nated by people who didn’t want a bear in their living room anymore.”
Speaking with students 70 years after Edna Lawrence’s collection began, it’s clear they are still thrilled about the Nature Lab’s treasures.
“To any artist, it’s really invaluable,” says Kai, an illustration student and one of the Lab’s student monitors, gesturing to a nearby armadillo. “It’s like having an animal pose for you — forever.”
“It’s kinda like RISD’s little secret,” added Jackie, another student monitor who majors in painting. “It’s a good spot to be creative.”
And, thankfully for Providence residents, the Nature Lab is open to the public. Karp admits that RISD’s recently installed keycard system has hindered walk-in access.
She insists, however, that if people are interested — school groups, local artists, curious pedestrians – they should simply call and request permission to enter from the on-duty staff member.
After that, everything from the Bone Room to Tiny Town (think: bugs, bark, and bacteria) is theirs to enjoy. Just remember to heed the sign, “WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE TOUCHING THE SKELETONS.”