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An introduction to Wonder: art and science on the brain

December 10, 2012

L0025619 Phrenology: the human and animal brain, the location of itsThInk was created to coincide with, and complement, the ‘Wonder’ season – a programme of public events produced by the Wellcome Trust in partnership with The Barbican and the British Neuroscience Association. In this post Amy Sanders, Programme Manager in the Special Projects department at the Wellcome Trust, introduces ‘Wonder’ and explains how it all began.

When Ian Varndell of the British Neuroscience Association approached the Wellcome Trust to ask for advice on devising a public-friendly programme for their biennial scientific conference, we couldn’t resist. It was taking place on our doorstep at the Barbican Centre, and it was such an interesting proposition, we knew we had to get involved.

Scientists and researchers are becoming increasingly adept at engaging the public and making their work accessible to a wider audience. They publish in open access journals, write blogs, appear in the media, visit schools, and some even do stand up. But the scientific conference remains one of the few parts of scientific life that is off limits to the public.

And there’s a reason for that. Opening up a scientific conference to the public poses a big challenge. The scientists need to get on with communicating their latest findings to each other, and to do that efficiently they need to assume a whole load of prior knowledge and use the language of their particular branch of science. So whilst there might well be a great public appetite for hearing about the latest brain scanning techniques or drug treatment for mental illness, simply opening up the whole meeting to a public audience probably wouldn’t work.

Our solution? We started planning a series of public events to run alongside the BNA 2013: Festival of Neuroscience – in the evenings, in the breaks between sessions, and also in the weeks running up to the event.  Our aim is to bring researchers, and the fascinating work they are doing right now, into direct contact with the Barbican’s regular public audience – culturally active Londoners, who might not ordinarily engage with neuroscience. The public might gain new insights into what brain scientists are up to, and what that could mean for our everyday lives, while the researchers might gain new perspectives on their work.

Now, several months later, neuroscience has crept into almost every part of the Barbican Centre’s spring programme. The programmers of film, theatre, learning, and music have taken the topics of the Festival’s scientific programme as inspiration and really run with the theme.

Happily, the response from neuroscientists has been equally enthusiastic – we’ve had over 50 applications to take part in a brain-themed Street Fair and hundreds of signups to our workshops on what art can do for neuroscience. I’m now coordinating a programme in which neuroscientists will be collaborating with techno DJs and visual artists, presenting their latest work whilst dressed in 19th century costume, debating the portrayal of mental illness in cinema, and chatting about their research over a sandwich with local city workers.

We hope the response from the public will be as strong. Tickets are selling well so we’re in with a chance. We’ll be looking at the impacts on researchers, and on the public, and perhaps even considering if this model could be applied to other scientific conferences in the future. I can’t wait to see how it works out.

Dr Amy Sanders

Dr Amy Sanders is Programme Manager in Special Projects at the Wellcome Trust

4 Comments leave one →
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  1. Behind-the-scenes at Wonder with Amy Sanders | thInk
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