When arts and science collide

Don’t be misled into thinking that combining arts and science is a current fad. Quite the contrary:  the collision of arts and science is an ancient practice, it’s embedded into our daily lives and the key to engaging future audiences.

Aboriginal people have combined science, story-telling, land management, custom, painting, dance and agriculture for more than 50,000 years and today, arts and science remain integral to our lives – think of the combination of design and engineering required to create elegant and functional structures, the integration of music and mathematics to deliver breathtaking scores, the medical discoveries that have been inspired by creative thinking, the new materials in fashion, the functionality and aesthetics in our technology and devices, the fusion of flavour and science in the foods we eat, and the creativity and coding genius in the games we play. Looking ahead, nearly every future-focused sector, from artificial intelligence and machine thinking, to space travel, requires two attributes for success: curiosity and creativity.

Within the cultural sector, however, the two disciplines are somewhat curiously separated  – we find the arts in galleries and the sciences in museums or science centres. With more than 11 million visits per annum, Australia’s museums play an important role in science engagement. Museum visitors skew to an older and family demographic, while 15–25 year olds make up a disproportionately small number of visitors.

The under-representation of young adults raises an important challenge – how do we attract the attention of young adults to science at a time when they are most impressionable and making decisions about career pathways? The Science Gallery network has taken this challenge head-on using the intermingling of arts and science to tap into this important demographic.

Embedded in the University of Melbourne, Science Gallery Melbourne is part of the Science Gallery International network. This group of galleries across the globe work to deliver a shared mission: to ignite curiosity in 15–25-year-olds. The network explores the boundaries of art and science by providing engaging experiences that will foster the next generation of science and technology trailblazers. Rather than a traditional top-down curatorial driven process, the Science Gallery methodology draws inspiration from open source systems, where ideas and content are generated from think tanks and call-outs. The intersection of arts and science enables a different kind of conversation, one in which risks are taken, ideas are edgy and content experimental.

In 2017 Science Gallery Melbourne put the rhetoric to the test and staged its first exhibition, BLOOD: Attract & Repel, in a pop-up location. The sub-themes chosen for the exhibition were unapologetically attention-grabbing: Taboo, stigma, identity, giving, health and future. Exhibition content was sourced from an open call that asked artists, scientists, and designers to submit proposals.

The curatorial advisory team responsible for selecting the exhibits included a haematologist, a virologist, a parasitologist, an artist with Indigenous heritage and a performance artist. During the selection of work for the exhibition, the scientists in the group pushed the arts curators to go further, deeper and take risks, and the artists provoked the scientists to consider new perspectives.

The artwork shown in BLOOD reflected the symbiotic relationship between the disciplines and the importance of questioning and pushing boundaries. The content was both edgy and thought provoking – exhibits included a hand-held cup made from sterilised HIV-positive blood, a graffitied representation of menorrhagia (heavy menstrual bleeding) in a Melbourne laneway, and a malaria ‘blood diamond’ created by artist Penny Byrne in collaboration with the Microsoft Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces at the University of Melbourne and scientists at Monash University. Each of these pairings enabled an artist or scientist to consider their work in a new light.

It’s still early days for Science Gallery Melbourne. However, the results so far are encouraging. The exhibition achieved a 96% satisfaction rating, 41% of visitors to BLOOD were aged 15–25, 53% of audiences stated that the exhibition would inspire them to think about a career in science, and 90% of audiences stated that the exhibition challenged their thinking.

The combination of arts and science might feel like a fad or fashion. History shows that it’s nothing new, however, and as the Science Gallery experience attests, it’s an attractive lens to inspire young adults as they consider their impact on the future.

Science Gallery Melbourne has announced PERFECTION as the theme for 2018 opening in September until November. Read more about “When science meets art” in issue 77 – Summer 2018 – of Cosmos Magazine. 

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