It began in jest. In 2014, University of Wyoming paleontologist Dr. Ellen Currano was having dinner with her friend, the filmmaker Lexi Jamieson Marsh. Conversation turned to the frustrations associated with being women in male-dominated fields.
“I said to her, ‘you know, maybe I should just put a beard on my face, and then people will take me seriously,’” Currano recalled. The women joked that they should make a film featuring women with beards.
Currano didn’t take it seriously. But the next day, she found a message from Marsh.
“She emailed me and said, ‘what if we actually did this?’” Currano said.
And thus, a passing joke turned into a statement piece about gender and science. Along with photographer Kelsey Vance, Currano and Marsh sought out more than 100 women in science, mainly the field of paleontology. They captured their stories and portraits — but with the wry addition of fake facial hair.
The topic struck a chord, and The Bearded Lady Project — which was originally envisioned as a five-minute Youtube video — snowballed into a feature-length documentary, photo exhibit and forthcoming book.
Now it occupies one of the nation’s most hallowed venues, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit will be up through May.
“I did not think it would go to the Smithsonian,” Currano said. “That was a higher profile than I ever dreamed of.”
Currano believes the project resonated so widely for a couple of reasons. One, because the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated space — or a member of any minority group, for that matter — are widely felt. And two, because the crew approached the topic with humor.
“You get a lot of lamenting about the problem,” Currano said. “You have excellent scientific studies that have been done to document the problem.” But, she added, “You need I think a safe space to talk about what’s going on, and I think we’ve provided that.”
For the project, the crew traveled around the globe to document female scientists.
What they discovered, Currano said, was an inspiring and overwhelming world of top-notch scientists. Scientists like Carole S. Hickman, a veteran invertebrate paleontologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley; Dr. Denise Su, a paleoecologist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History who studies the environments of humans’ earliest ancestors; and Currano herself, whose work looks at how ancient forest communities responded to global warming.
The resulting black and white portraits are reminiscent of early portraits of scientists. Only where the former were dominated by white males, the latter feature bearded ladies with twinkles of defiance in their eyes.
It’s funny, yes. But Currano said at its core, the project aims to challenge deeply held biases.
“I think the No. 1 takeaway is to challenge the stereotype of who is in science, and who belongs in science,” she said. “Then No. 2 is the community building.”