New exhibition to marry art with science through storytelling

5 Aug 2022

Selected objects from the Conway Cabinets of Curiosities at the UCD Conway Institute. Image: Emer O’Boyle/UCD

Backed by SFI and UCD, STEP Through the Looking Glass will give the public ‘a unique glimpse’ into the lives of the people behind research.

A unique Irish exhibition is aiming to bring scientists and artists together through storytelling.

STEP Through the Looking Glass: Stories Told of Experimental Processes will use personal and scientific objects belonging to different people to spark conversations.

It is the result of work done by artist and tapestry weaver Lorna Donlon, scientists from University College Dublin (UCD) and patient advocates who work with them.

The launch of the exhibition will take place at the Grennan Mill Craft School in Kilkenny tomorrow (6 August) as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. It can be seen at other locations after that.

Donlon was a student at the craft school in 1984 and later taught weaving there for 12 years.

During the pandemic, she undertook an artistic residency at the UCD Conway Institute, having recently graduated from the university with a degree in cell and molecular biology.

In the initial phase of Donlon’s residency, she mounted an installation at the entrance of the UCD Conway Institute called Cabinets of Everyday Curiosities.

It displayed ordinary, everyday objects that spoke of the lives of people in Donlon’s life, placed without label or explanation. These objects acted as storytelling devices.

The STEP exhibition stems from this project. Donlon invited scientists at the biomedical research institute to view the cabinets, and then install their own everyday object in exchange for one that was on display – until all objects belonged to the researchers and represented their daily lives.

“It has been fascinating to work with Lorna on this project,” said Prof Helen Roche, director of the UCD Conway Institute and one of the 12 scientists involved in the project.

“Scientists and artists are inherently curious by nature but in very different ways. I started looking at objects lying around my office and lab in a whole new light.”

Audiences at the exhibition will be able to view large-format photographs of the 12 scientists and two patient advocates who took part. They will also be able to listen to conversations between Donlon, the scientists and patient advocates involved with the Patient Voice in Cancer Research initiative.

“The exhibition will give the public a unique glimpse into the lives of people behind the research as well as the research itself,” said Dr Ruth Freeman, director of science for society at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

“Projects such as this help us to provide important platforms and spaces for researchers and artists to come together, learn from each other and create new insights that can benefit society as a whole.”

The exhibition was funded by SFI through its Discover programme and by the UCD Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic