Deep observation of the disparate collections housed here — from nearly nano-scale to life-sized objects — provides the opportunity to touch and examine specimens from the natural world, discover the wonder and complexities of design in nature and inform your studio work through the processes, materials and organizing principles found in the living world. Selected specimens may also be borrowed for short periods of time — like checking a book out of the library.

View our growing Digital 3D Specimen Library on Sketchfab.

View our growing online image galleries on Flickr.

Edna W. Lawrence Natural History Collection

In the 1920s and ’30s, RISD faculty member Edna W. Lawrence (a 1920 graduate of the Painting program) would spend summers driving across the country collecting natural specimens for students to work with in her Nature Drawing class. In 1937 she founded the Nature Lab with an original collection of 1,286 objects (including shells, butterflies, minerals, skeletons, seed pods and taxidermy) that grew to more than 25,000 items by the time she retired 38 years later. Today the Natural History Collection includes nearly 80,000 individual specimens. You can interact with part of the collection online via our Virtual 3D Specimen Library.

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Tiny Town

Found in our Microscopy Lab, this is a collection of a few thousand small-scale specimens displayed in 2 x 2’’ clear acrylic boxes. Stereo microscopes offer the opportunity to view, draw, paint and/or digitally capture insects, lichens, corals and myriad other natural wonders magnified between 9x and 185x their actual size.

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Discover hidden geometries in the silica structure of a diatom, marvel at the crochet-like patterns revealed in the cross-section of a plant cell and investigate the surprising architecture of a fungus spore. This eye-opening collection of hundreds of prepared glass slide mounts is best explored using our compound microscopes with a magnification capacity of 40 to 1000x actual size.

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Nearly Nanoville

Our growing library of prepared samples for the scanning electron microscope includes both organic and inorganic materials. Capture micrographs and view unexpected topographies revealed in the surface of poppy seeds, sea urchin tests and amethyst crystals magnified up to 45,000x their actual size.

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Arthur Loeb Design Science Teaching Collection

PLEASE NOTE: The Loeb collection is being securely housed and temporarily stewarded by the Fleet Library while the former repository space undergoes assessment for renovation. The Visual and Material Resource Center (VMRC; 2nd Floor, 15 Westminster) is creating an illustrated catalog that will be available through Digital Commons @ RISD (our institutional repository) which already hosts the illustrated database of the Loebs Symmetry Portfolio. The collection is currently being prepared for access by appointment through the VMRC.

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Reference Library

Not everything you ever wanted to know lives online. Take some time to browse through our ecological design and natural science reference library to discover interesting and useful resources for the inquiry at hand – and to explore and appreciate the beauty of these books and brochures in their own right.

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Live Plants + Animals

The Nature Lab is home to a variety of living plants and animals that includes small mammals, reptiles, and fishes, as well as arthropods, mollusks, jellyfishes and other invertebrates. Marine aquaria hold seasonal and permanent residents collected from Narragansett Bay. These organisms provide insight into biology, locomotion and behavior in ways that non-living specimens cannot and further represent the amazingly diverse strategies for survival found among individual species.

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Biomaterials Collection

The Nature Lab's approach to material innovation is rooted not only in sustainability, but in creating materials embedded in biological systems, through both natural metabolisms and created metabolisms.

In natural metabolisms, sometimes referred to a g-i-y, or grow-it yourself, organisms make our materials, as is the case with kombucha leather or mushroom foams from introduced feedstocks. Created metabolisms use biologically derived ingredients to fabricate materials with lab equipment, such as starch-, gelatin- or agar- based bioplastics. Some example processes can be viewed in the RISD Nature Lab Bioplastic Guidebook.

Like materials in nature, some are extremely ephemeral, like a flower petal, some can last a very long time indeed, like wood. All are ultimately biodegradeable. Samples of these and other bio-materials can be accessed in person upon request from the Nature Lab's biomaterials library.

For more information, please check out our Biodesign Makerspace website or contact Jen Bissonnette at

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The Nature Lab offers a range of specialized tools and equipment that support visual inquiry into biological and natural sciences.

Learn more about our equipment

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The RISD Nature Lab is an EPSCoR|C-AIM Core Research Facility supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement #OIA-1655221 and EAGER Grant Award #1723559. ​​​Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed on this site are those of the Nature Lab and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.​

© 2022 Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design