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Posts tagged ‘Australasia’

Science at the edge of the world

The 10-meter South Pole Telescope and the BICEP Telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

South Pole telescope and BICEP2 telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. | REUTERS

Antarctica science has been major news recently, with the apparent discovery of gravitational waves by the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) telescope, sited at the South Pole. If confirmed, this discovery is of huge significance to our understanding of how the universe began, as it supports the inflationary theory of how the universe formed, which proposes that there was a sudden stupendous enlargement of the universe in the first infinitesimal fraction of a second after the big bang. This inflation would have created ripples in space-time (gravitational waves), according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Astrophysicists have been searching for signs of these waves in cosmic microwave radiation – the afterglow of the Big Bang – which fills the entire cosmos. However, it was known that such waves would be miniscule and incredibly difficult to detect, but if they could be detected, it would help to prove that inflation had happened.

Staff at Halley VI launch a weather balloon to take samples from the atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

Staff at Halley VI launch a weather balloon to take samples from the atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

It is the dryness of Antarctica that makes it ideal for astronomical research, as atmospheric water vapour absorbs millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths, making it difficult to observe cosmic microwave background in most places on Earth. The combination of altitude – 11,000 feet – and cold (temperature averages -49° Celsius) in Antarctica makes for a very dry atmosphere. As an added bonus for astronomical research, nighttime lasts for six months. These conditions allow for optimum observation of very deep space.

As well as astronomical research, much other important scientific research also takes place in Antarctica. Scientists come to the continent from around the world to study climate, astrophysics, marine biology, geology, ecology, and more. The Antarctic ice sheet plays a vital role in the functioning of the global ecosystem. It stores 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water, and the seasonal changes in Antarctica’s sea ice have a profound influence on atmospheric and water temperatures and weather patterns.

As laid out in the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, Antarctica is a continent solely dedicated to science. But the extreme conditions of cold and dark in Antarctica make human life, habitation – and therefore scientific research – highly challenging. To undertake any scientific research in Antarctica depends not only on the quality and commitment of the scientists, but also on the nature of the scientific stations, facilities and equipment.

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first "Zero emission" polar research station in the mist at Utsteinen - Belare 2008-2009

Ice Lab – Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first “Zero emission” polar research station (c) René Robert – International Polar Foundation

At the Arts Catalyst, we’re excited that our curated exhibition, ‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’, initiated and commissioned by the British Council, will tour to New Zealand’s IceFest in Autumn 2014, where it will show at the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, from 26 Sept – 12 Oct 2014. ‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’ presents some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, which enables scientists to do ground-breaking research in extreme conditions, as well as showcasing some of the science that takes place there.

‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’ features architectural projects that not only utilise cutting-edge technology and engineering, but have equally considered aesthetics, sustainability and human needs in their ground-breaking designs for scientific research stations. The exhibition features four international projects: Halley VI, UK (Hugh Broughton Architects), Princess Elizabeth, Belgium (International Polar Foundation), Bharati, India (bof architekten/IMS), Jang Bogo, South Korea (Space Group), and the Iceberg Living Station (MAP Architects) – a speculative design for a future research station to be entirely made from compacted snow. The featured stations are each architecturally pioneering – from Halley VI, the first fully relocatable polar research station, to Bharati, a striking modernist structure made from prefabricated shipping containers, to the Princess Elisabeth, Antarctica’s first zero-emission station, which seamlessly integrates renewables wind and solar energy, water treatment facilities, passive building technologies and a smart grid for maximizing energy efficiency.

Installation view of the Antarctica station models.

Ice Lab exhibition. Installation view of the Antarctica station models. Photo: McAteer Photography

Ice Lab, previously shown at Lighthouse, Glasgow, and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, includes original drawings, models, photographs and films of the stations, and highlights the diverse science that takes place in Antarctica – from collecting 4.5 billion year old meteorites that illuminate how the solar system formed, to drilling ice cores whose bubbles of ancient air reveal the earth’s climate history. As part of the exhibition, artist Torsten Lauschmann was commissioned to create two new artworks, ‘Whistler’ and ‘Ice Diamond’.

A person sitting on a rock reading the Ice Lab book surrounded by snow and one penguin.

Ice Lab book being read in Antarctica. Photo: Clare Thorpe

Accompanying the Ice Lab exhibition, there is a publication – available in print form and as a free downloadable e-book – with essays by Dr David Walton (British Antarctic Survey) and Sam Jacob (co-founder of FAT architects).

The Ice Lab exhibition builds on Arts Catalyst’s previous work on Antarctic issues, including Simon Faithfull’s 2006 Ice Blink exhibition of artwork resulting from his trip to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, and the 2007 POLAR: Fieldwork & Archive Fever series, with Kathryn Yusoff and the British Library, which incorporated a symposium, public talks, a publication Bipolar, and two new artists’ commissions from Anne Brodie and Weather Permitting.

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Human specimens: a labyrinth of morality, science and law

Aaron Williamson, Specimen Mirror, performance, with the skeleton of Charles Byrne, Hunterian Museum, 2011

I was interested to see this debate come up in the media just before Christmas:

Royal College of Surgeons rejects call to bury skeleton of ‘Irish giant’

The authors of a paper in the British Medical Journal called for the skeletal remains of a man called Charles Byrne, the so-called ‘Irish Giant’, on display in the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum in London, to be buried at sea. Byrne, who lived in the 18th century and was 7′ 7″ tall, was an object of curiosity for the  famous surgeon and anatomist Sir John Hunter. Byrne became so afraid that doctors would dissect his corpse after his death that he left specific instructions for his body to be buried at sea. But when he died, aged just 22, Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party and stole the body. Byrne’s skeleton has been on public display ever since. The BMJ paper’s authors claimed that all possible medical insights from the skeleton have now been gleaned and Byrne’s remains should be buried according to his wishes, but the Hunterian Museum rejected this call, saying that it considers that the educational and research benefits merit retaining Byrne’s remains.

This story has a particular interest for me because, in May last year, we co-organised an event with the disability arts group Shape at the Hunterian Museum. Titled ‘Labyrinth of Living Exhibits’, the event addressed the issue of human specimens in such collections.

The Hunterian is little known, central yet tucked away upstairs at the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. There are thousands of specimens on display, the remains of the once vast collection made by Hunter. Many still carry his classification as either ‘morbid’ or ‘normal’. The unsettling collection contains many human parts, including whole skeletons and human foetuses. The focus of Hunter’s collecting was clearly biased towards ‘the different’ – extreme cases of growth, “abnormality” and disease.

In the Labyrinth of Living Exhibits, artist Aaron Williamson curated four simultaneous, specially commissioned, site-specific performances, which infiltrated and responded to the collection, performed simultaneously by disabled artists Aaron Williamson, Sinéad O’Donnell, Brian Catling and Katherine Araniello.

Katherine Araniello, BiPAP 1 (Living Experiment), photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

In Araniello’s work, she took on the guise of a guinea pig escaped from a laboratory in a dark, slow and subversive performance. Brian Catling’s performance Out of Its Depth, in fact, began at the Hunterian in 1979 in response to a “specimen” which the Museum housed until recently: the body of a one-eyed child (now locked away out of public view). Wearing a latex, one-eyed mask, Catling walked through the collections or stood by a pillar, peering through his fingers and making faces, mirroring the audience’s curiosity. In Williamson’s own performance, Specimen Mirror, he distorted his own facial features by pressing them against the glass cases of the collections, in response to the flattened suspended specimens.

Brian Catling, Out Of Its Depth, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

A lively panel discussion followed the performances. Aaron Williamson opened the discussion by describing the impetus for each of the performances, explaining his curatorial interest in the responses of artists who are “set apart from the norm” through illness or medical prognosis.

The museum’s director, Sam Alberti, then gave an honest exposition of the Hunterian’s collections of “disabled people as objects”. He explained that the museum was set up in the 18th and developed in the 19th century, and that in those centuries museums were in the business of “classifying” difference. Human remains that came into museums were classified against the “norm”, which at that time, he said, was male, heterosexual, white and European. Anyone else was pathologised. The Hunterian Museum, Alberti explained, is not a medical museum, but a medical history museum, and what it displays are the legacies of prejudice. Alberti said that he felt very passionately that it was important to understand and show to the public the representation and construction of difference, and that the display had to be seen through this historical lens. Araniello disagreed with Alberti and said she didn’t feel that it was helpful at all to have such images and specimens on display for the public, and that it did more harm than good in continuing to objectify and pathologies people.

You can watch video recordings of the full panel discussion here.

Panel discussion of Labyrinth Living Exhibits, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

So I found it fascinating to see the debate about Charles Byrne’s remains raised again in the media, quoting Alberti saying “The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.”

It is a complex debate between science, education and morality, complicated by a man’s dying wishes and a nasty case of corpse robbing.

But there is also a wider context for this debate in the claims on human remains in all other museum collections. Since the late 1970s, human remains in museum collections have been subject to claims and controversies, such as demands for repatriation by indigenous groups who suffered under colonization. These requests have often been contested by the museums and by scientists who research the material and consider it unique evidence, echoing the Hunterian’s arguments over Byrne’s remains.

This is a topic that has interested me for several years. At one point, I was involved in some very early stage discussions with another London museum about an exhibition on such a theme. Whilst the exhibition never developed, there has been much progress in this area over the last decade. Increasingly, many museums are removing human remains from their collections, sometimes returning them to their countries of origin, often for reburial. One sticking point was legislation that prevented most national museums from removing items from their collections, but this changed in 2004 (under Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act), and nine national museums now have the power to deaccession human remains under 1000 years old held in their collections. In 2011, for example, the Natural History Museum returned 19 ancestral remains to the Torres Strait Island community. There is an interesting video about the return on the museum’s site.

But in a book published last year, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections, the sociologist Tiffany Jenkins argued that museums were being “over-sensitive” to demands for greater “respect” for human remains, and removing specimens from public display that were valued by museum-goers.

It is an interesting and ongoing debate. Do you have examples of other art projects or exhibitions that have explored these issues? I’d be interested to hear.

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