Dr Hannah Newton, organiser of the recent outreach exhibition ‘The Beauty in Science’, reviews the successes and public feedback from the project.

The Beauty in Science exhibition has now closed its doors and the print images have been moved to our very own Lancaster University library where they are on show from 11November to 6 December.

The public exhibition at The Storey in the heart of Lancaster was a huge success with over 1,000 visitors coming through the doors to see it. The exhibition brought together stunning images of science research from across the Lancaster University’s science departments.

The gallery at The Storey housed images, animations, time-lapse photography, video, sounds and objects associated with our science research, as well as a wonderful soil installation. An adjoining room contained a showcase of current research projects at Lancaster University along with our business partnerships and information to take away about Science and Technology at Lancaster as well as Lancaster University student prospectuses.

The mixed media of the exhibition was important to its success as it ensured that there was something to appeal to everyone whether they had 10 minutes or 2 hours to spend in the gallery.

The launch night for The Beauty in Science was well attended, with the guest list including local businesses, teachers, press and Lancaster University collaborators. Our Vice Chancellor, Professor Mark Smith, gave an excellent welcome address about the University’s commitment to engaging our local community with our research and the real benefits this brings. The Mayor of Lancaster, Councillor June Ashworth, officially opened the exhibition and spoke of her genuine delight at seeing Lancaster University bring this accessible event into the city centre.

Who turned up?

We cast the net wide to attract the public to the exhibition and talks. The press office were excellent at drumming up interest across the region with articles appearing in local newspapers such as the Lancaster Guardian, the Lancaster Evening Post and The Visitor as well as the magazine Rural Life and an online presence with Virtual Lancaster and ArtsCity. I gave a radio interview to the John Gilmore Show on BBC Radio Lancashire.

This wide net brought in people with, and without, an established interest in science. We spoke to visitors who were artists, teachers, photographers, children, parents, school students, university students, retired people and alumni of Lancaster University. The central location meant that we got a fair few strays who wandered in off the street to see what was in the building or who were biding their time before catching a train.

Over 200 of the visitors were local A-level students and their teachers. Their comments showed they found the exhibition “impressive and informative” and “the posters, as well as the wonderful images, show some of the amazing work being done” at Lancaster University.  A teacher said it was “reassuring” to see the breadth and depth of our science research. 

Alongside the exhibition we ran a series of well-attended talks that brought in a diverse audience, both in background and age. The talks were pitched at just the right level so that each speaker had questions directed at them whether it was about modelling or linguistics.  We had a core group that appeared for every talk comprising interested locals and A-level students from the grammar schools.

What worked and what we could do better

The exhibition aimed to raise the profile of science research at Lancaster University whilst engaging with our local schools, businesses and wider community.  I believe it did this, attracting a wide range of people. I’m particularly pleased that it seemed to spark the interest of our younger generation.

Measuring success in an event like this is difficult, so it was important to collect feedback from visitors. We had a visitor’s book in the gallery and we also observed visitors to see how they responded to the exhibition.

The mixture of visual and audio worked well in the gallery space. The soil installation (now in the Lancaster Environment Centre Atrium) was a central focus that presented the viewer with a different soil profile on each side. We saw families arguing over what sound they were listening to in the sound booth and heard groups debating their favourite images.  From the comments in the visitors book, it’s clear there is demand for more exhibitions like this.

We had excellent contributions from most of the University science departments but the representation could have been spread more equally.  Both members of the public and contributors have asked about the ‘legacy’ of The Beauty in Science exhibition. After the images finish their run in Lancaster University library they will be returned to their respective departments for display but perhaps we could have thought of a more permanent legacy.

The Beauty in Science identified a thirst in our community to find out what researchers are up to at Lancaster University and I hope this success will spur on others to find accessible and unusual ways to engage with the public, on their doorstep, in central Lancaster.

Dr Hannah Newton is a research associate in the Lancaster Environment Centre. 

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