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31/10/2014

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Science from the Fourth Plinth

Lucy Goodchild tries some unusual engagement

On 6 July 2009, a corner of Trafalgar Square was transformed into a living, breathing monument of Britain, when artist Anthony Gormley took over the Fourth Plinth with his project One and Other. For many, like me, this provided a perfect opportunity to engage with the public about science. But did it work?

Any member of the public could apply for an hour on the plinth, and names were chosen at random. There were almost 35,000 applicants and 2,400 people were allocated an hour each on the Plinth, covering 24 hours a day for 100 days. I was given 2-3pm on a sunny Sunday in August, prime time for getting the maximum number of passers-by interested in what I was talking about... which was bees.

My performance

I was acutely aware that people would be expecting to be entertained.  My audience wasn’t a self-selecting, science-savvy one, it was a mixture of people interested in art, people who relished the chance to take a peek into the lives of an eclectic group of Plinthers, many tourists and passers-by, people working and living in London, and thousands of people around the world watching the live video stream on the website and following the comments on Twitter.

I began my hour with an explanation, in rhyming couplets, of how bees communicate with each other using dance and chemical signalling. The crowd stayed and seemed interested in what I was saying. At the end of the segment, they were competing to get the right answers to my questions and win a knitted bee, or a packet of bee-friendly flower seeds. Although many people drifted in and out, some stayed for the full hour and there was even a group of young teenagers chanting ‘Save the bees!’ for a while.

My virtual audience was equally engaged with what I was doing. I had lots of great Tweets, including ‘Good bee outfit and info etc. Great stuff :)’ and ‘amazing! I love that video! i couldn't believe how much I didn't know about bees.’

Other Plinthers talked about Darwin, water sanitation and Multiple Sclerosis, and one man even conducted several experiments, including one to find out whether toast is more likely to land butter-side down.

Platform for engagement

The Fourth Plinth was a great platform for engaging with the public about science. The intrinsic exhibitionism of the project gave people the chance to loosen up and be radical in their presentations – I would not have dressed as a bee if I had been addressing a lecture theatre full of scientists. This made the performances interesting and absorbing, and held the attention of passing spectators.

Its location certainly helped too. Trafalgar Square is a national landmark, packed full of visitors every day. The project was high-profile and gained plenty of column inches before it started. It was also controversial – the four plinths traditionally hold static instalments for people to look at – and it divided public opinion. The project was as much about the spectators as it was about the Plinthers, many of whom relied on the people watching to make their hour a success.

Video footage of the plinth was streamed live on the website, 24 hours a day, for anyone to watch. The website enabled the public to comment on Plinthers’ hours and talk to them about their performances. The Twitter hashtag #oneandother was in constant use for the duration of the project, and the conversation is ongoing – the last person to use the hashtag Tweeted two hours ago as I write.

We can take away some lessons: choose a good location, be attention-grabbing, entertain and engage online. Personally, I would love to see a physics plinth or a psychology podium one day. 

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Lucy Goodchild
Lucy Goodchild is Press Officer at Imperial College London
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