It's show time! Academics tap into artists' imagination for wow factor

Sheffield's Festival of the Mind is a collaborative spectacle to excite the public. Matthew Reisz writes

September 20, 2012

Giant bowerbird nests scattered around Sheffield, a huge mural painted by robots and inspired by the flight paths of bees, a "busking night" during which Marmite will be turned white, and even a recreation of a celebrated 17th-century scientific demonstration using pantomime horses and giraffes.

All this forms part of a major programme of events designed to get academics interacting with artists and taking their research out into the streets.

Sheffield's Festival of the Mind, which runs from 20-30 September, is the brainchild of Vanessa Toulmin, head of cultural engagement at the University of Sheffield.

She has long worked closely with "showman sculptor" Anthony Bennett, who draws on the National Fairground Archive - which she runs - as inspiration for the figures he creates.

"I wanted colleagues to enjoy the same kind of collaboration," she explained, "where someone takes your ideas and puts them into a completely different format."

These thoughts led to the Ideas Bazaar last September, a "speed-dating day" bringing together 150 researchers from the university and 450 members of the local creative community, from which arose 98 proposals for collaborative projects.

A third were supported by money from Research Councils UK, the Wellcome Trust and the Higher Education Innovation Fund, and 10 more put together their own finances.

The festival will showcase the projects, which involve academics joining up with filmmakers, theatre companies, magicians and musicians, not to mention an archaeologist working with the South Yorkshire Police to recreate a historic crime scene.

Tim Birkhead, professor of zoology at Sheffield, has helped contemporary artist Paul Evans to build 8ft-high bowerbird nests around the city, adorned with trinkets to tempt the public to step inside.

For Tom Stafford, lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at Sheffield, "one of the lessons of psychology is that things that look straightforward often have surprising depths".

He was delighted to get involved in "a great example of interdisciplinary work between art and science" when artist Matthias Jones asked him to provide some of the code that would enable two robots to produce a 20ft-square mural of the Sheffield landscape in less than a week.

Even more dramatic is the "outdoor public demonstration" planned by Charles Stirling, professor of chemistry at Sheffield. This will recreate Otto Von Guericke's famous 1656 demonstration of the existence of vacuums, when he pumped the air out of two large copper hemispheres and let two teams of eight horses try in vain to pull them apart. To add to the spectacle and prevent traffic congestion, Professor Stirling decided to use students dressed up as horses - although a shortage of outfits means that some will be replaced by giraffes.

"I want to give people a scientific wow experience", he explained, when the vacuum seal is opened and "the hemispheres separate and the horses and giraffes collapse. Scientists should be more like showmen. We need to increase wonderment."

The goal of such "exciting collaborations", Professor Toulmin added, is "to show how fantastic our research is, that it doesn't have to be dumbed down to be engaging, and that it has impact well beyond the ivory tower".

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