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The art of public engagement

Julia Thomas makes space through metaphor

Before giving up my job and retraining in the Arts, I studied genetics and statistics and worked as a biostatistician. Believe me, statistics is not a subject that lends itself well to after-dinner conversations with non-scientists. Throughout my scientific career, I often found myself using metaphors and analogies in order to communicate my work.

Artists often employ metaphor. Making connections and seeing the similar in the dissimilar to suggest and evoke rather than to state facts, may help the viewer to find a way into the science. Recognising the importance of the public voice is vital for engaging people in science, but creating the right space for the public to feel they can contribute to the conversation can be a challenge. Furthermore, public groups tend to assess new information subjectively in terms of their own experiences.

The Medical Research Council’s Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics in Cardiff carries out genetic and genomic research to understand the major causes of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. Having spent nearly two years talking to MRC Centre staff and attending seminars and events, I generated a body of artwork that was exhibited at a Cardiff art gallery as part of a week-long festival of social science in November 2011. (A report on the exhibition, ‘Translation: From Bench to Brain’, can be found on the MRC Centre’s public engagement website It was a collaboration between the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics & Genomics ,the ESRC Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen) and the artists Rhys Bevan Jones and Julia Thomas)

Capturing human experience

Some of the artworks focussed around aspects of Big Science which, in the case of neuropsychiatric genomics, is characterised by the necessarily large-scale collaborative patient studies that interrogate the DNA from patients’ blood samples in relation to information provided in patient surveys. Within the artworks entitled Big Science I and Big Science II, viewers see a mass of quirky crafted red wire figures transposed ethereally through the medium of paint onto multiple film-like sheets, the size of early computer data punched cards. This evokes ideas of the transfer of individual human experience to data, of revealing, and of attempting to create order from something that is inherently variable.

MRC Centre staff and members of the public were invited to make a wire figure, contributing their own individuality to this collective mass. Each figure is a small but unique part of a much bigger picture which provides a metaphor for the scale, capture and documentation that will feature so greatly within future research as these large data-rich patient studies begin to reveal interesting initial results.

Also exhibited were works of Rhys Bevan Jones, a psychiatrist and artist who illustrates how people ‘see’ the mind through pen and ink, printmaking and digital imaging media.

Personal contribution

With visits from schoolchildren and medical students, an evening of academic talks, an art and science forum, poetry workshop and artists ‘walk and talk’, I found myself talking to people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Ever intrigued at what people bring of themselves to the process of viewing artworks, I had created pieces that encouraged some form of personal contribution, thereby creating opportunities for a conversation to develop through the act of making and participation.

One comment in particular sums up the feedback we received: ‘This is such a fascinating, interesting and socially (and medically) relevant exhibition. Fortunate to be able to talk to the artists today and in doing so gained a greater insight into their work.’

Academic speakers were impressed at how engaged the audience were and at how eager they were to ask questions.

For me, engaging the public is not about putting a piece of science-related art on the wall and walking away. It’s about encouraging a questioning approach, and having a conversation about and around the underlying science. Above all it’s about making space.

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Julia Thomas
Julia Thomas is a visual artist whose work explores themes around genetics and genomics
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