Something special happens when you combine art and science. At first glance, or even first thought, it seems these two disciplines are separate entities. When combined however, the reality that both disciplines are rooted in the philosophy of discovery and understanding of the world comes shining through. The realisation of this and its ensuing beauty was on full display at Regeneration: A Story of Becoming.
Regeneration is the brainchild and dissertation project of Autumn Brown, a Master’s student in Science Communication. Taking place at the MRC Centre for Regeneration on June 22nd, the exhibit featured glasswork, screen prints, and other artworks by various scientists at the centre. Prior to this exhibit, these pieces had been seen by virtually no one.
“Nobody had seen [the artwork],” Autumn describes. “This amazing amazing work has never seen the light of day. It’s never had a platform. Nobody from the public had ever seen it.” So Autumn told her client, Dr Robin Morton, head of science communication at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine, that instead of her original idea of a fairy-tale like film, “I’d like to make an exhibit, instead.”
Autumn’s next step was to contact the scientists who made the art pieces. This was done to understand not only the science behind the pieces, but the people who made the artwork and their motivation for entering this field of research. What she found were very enthusiasm people whose depth, passion, and care for their field was felt in both their research and the artwork they produced.
“It was cool that the non-scientist visitors [to the exhibit]…saw scientists as people with hobbies and passions. People who are creative and people who romanticise their science. A lot of them do and that’s why I think the art was so good. They love it, they believe in it, and they romanticise it. It takes a lot of passion to do what they do, and I think that came across in a lot of the artwork, particularly the glass.”
The exhibit itself was divided into three sections, each featuring a couple of labels to guide the visitor as they wandered through the exhibit. In totality, there were nine labels, which pulled the artwork together into one cohesive story. Storytelling was a key part of the exhibit, and this was felt as visitors moved between the three sections; seeing pieces which reflected the scientific process of trial and error, pieces which showed science as a form of exploration and questioning, and pieces which took you into the lab and reflected the beauty of looking at the world through a scientific lens.
As a guide for the story, the labels represented the narrative of the exhibit even if read out of order or if some of the labels were skipped. As Autumn describes, “I wrote labels that are supposed to tell a story…So part of my dissertation is that if I tell a story in labels and people read them out of order or don’t even read all of them, I hypothesise that people can still put together the story of the exhibit, even with information missing or doing it out of order because pattern finding is what we do…The way we think day-to-day is in a narrative format; we’re always trying to make these cause and effect relationships…its how we make sense of things.”
“I wanted to write a narrative that non-experts could understand, but also a narrative that had a deeper meaner so that when experts went, they saw the surface narrative and also the deeper [scientific] one underneath.”
Like the individual artworks themselves, the story featured multiple layers which impacted people to different degrees. For the scientists who came, the exhibit was a familiar reminder of the beauty of their own work, and – to the surprise of some scientists – a reflection of the diversity of the centre. The artwork was a giant reminder of how the different sciences involved in stem cell research were united in their scientific goals.
“It’s kind of metaphoric for the way stem cells work,” Autumn states. “ When stem cells specialise, a liver cell and a neuron do very different jobs, but both are necessary for the health of the whole body. And people who do flow cytometry and people who do histology are both really important to stem cell research. They’re very different sciences…and having that diversity helps with the health and general wellbeing of the whole field of research.”
For the non-scientist visitors, the impact was slightly different. Aside from the general learning of new words like blastocytes and pluripotent, many non-scientists saw a different side to scientists, and in this realisation discovered multifaceted people not solely defined by an occupation. As for the influence on the artists themselves? Their self-discoveries went back to the days they were making their pieces.
“The art informs the science and the science informs the art. There was an interplay there and all the scientists mentioned that,” Autumn states. “The ones who made the art – they said: ‘It wasn’t just illustrating my science; it helped me think about it in a different way’.”
This article was written by Dianna Bautista and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.