Emily Scott-Dearing is the curator of Craft & Graft: Making Science Happen, the Crick’s new exhibition about the technicians, engineers and specialists who support our science.
Here, Emily gives us an insight into how it all came together.
Where did the idea for Craft & Graft come from?
The brief was to bring the Crick’s technicians, engineers and specialists into the spotlight as part of the institution signing up to the government’s Technician Commitment. That’s a great starting point, but from there I was free to take it wherever I wanted.
There were several things that struck me early on in my research, which I knew I wanted to incorporate into the exhibition. The first was the privilege I had getting behind-the-scenes access. I wanted to share this with visitors to the exhibition, as each of these specialist workspaces has a distinctive aesthetic and atmosphere.
Next, I really wanted to share the craft and graft that goes into making science at the Crick happen and the stark reality that without these teams, there’d be no science here at all. I wanted to bring those skilled hands and the characters involved into the spotlight.
Finally, I wanted to get across the relentless drive for efficiency that these teams bring – through innovation, problem solving and economies of scale – which give the Crick its edge.
Can you explain some of the processes behind its curation?
I began by visiting lots of the Crick’s STPs and core facilities – meeting the teams, taking loads of photos and making detailed notes about what their work involves. I wanted to really get under the skin of the place. At regular meetings with the project’s steering group I’d play back my observations and test ideas for the messages I wanted to communicate to exhibition visitors.
Over time – and having visited over 20 teams – I shortlisted five disciplines to feature in the exhibition. They represented a good range of the Crick’s technical and specialist activity. These teams were amazingly patient with my cheeky requests to borrow equipment or consumables to include in the display.
The other major task for the curator is to write the words which appear on the walls of the exhibition and the labels explaining the items on display – about 5,000 words in total! Editing and agreeing the final text is a collaborative process with the featured teams and the Communications team, to ensure it’s both engaging to read and factually accurate.
Is there an aspect of the exhibition that you’re particularly excited about?
I’ve enjoyed the process of recreating a number of the specialist workbenches I’ve seen in use and bring authenticity and personal touches. For example, Alan Ling from the Crick’s Engineering Workshop has kindly lent us an instrument chest, which usually sits on his workshop bench, made by his grandfather as part of his own technical training.
And, alongside the high-tech microscopy equipment and diamond knives used to prepare samples, we have the wonderfully low-tech eyelash-on-a-cocktail-stick used to manoeuvre the most delicate samples into position.
I’m really delighted by the films we’ve created too, and the way they bring the exhibition to life.
The films at the beginning and end of the exhibition show how any scientific process depends on input from a range of technicians and specialists who seamlessly pass the baton from one team to the next to keep the science happening.
Another five films sneak a peek over the shoulders of these individuals to reveal what a day in the life of these usually private corners of the Crick is really like.
In what way is Craft & Graft different to other exhibitions you’ve been involved in?
I often work on exhibitions which are about much broader areas of science or which look back over a period of history. It’s been a pleasure to stay totally focused on this one extraordinary institution and to drill down into the detail, really getting to know the reality of the work here and the people involved.
It’s also very refreshing to have the less-discussed but critically important roles in science so explicitly in the spotlight.
I always make it my responsibility to dig out less well-known people and their stories to include in an exhibition, but on this project, that was the whole point.
How does it feel now that the exhibition is open?
I feel incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved. My favourite moment on exhibition projects is being able to stand in the finished exhibition, watching (and eavesdropping on!) visitors as they take in what you’ve created.