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I:DNA - Finding your public


I:DNA is a Wellcome Trust funded project that was created to engage the public with research led by Professor Felicity Boardman, in conjunction with Dr Corinna Clark, at Warwick Medical School. The research explores the experiences of people living with inherited conditions and their attitudes towards genetic medicine.

This video provides an overview of the art installation produced to explore these themes. You can read more about the project as a whole here.

Finding your public:

Initially our remit was quite wide – to access as many people as possible from a diverse range of backgrounds, who would not ordinarily encounter, or engage with, the social and ethical implications of genomic technologies. The I:DNA team (research and artistic collaborators) discussed the use of well known, highly used public locations for the installation, such as large railway stations or shopping centres, to enable us to access people who would not choose to go to galleries or science exhibits. However, the practicalities of this – such as acquiring necessary permissions, space, the need for extensive curation, security, health and safety and cost – meant that these were not viable options. We considered attending several science (or science and arts) festivals across the UK, to gain a wide geographical reach. However, the cost of moving, installing, and curating a large sculpture, and because many festivals charge to host an exhibit, meant that this was not a very cost-effective option. It would also narrow our reach to the members of the public who would attend a science or arts festival.

We decided to focus on a diverse range of local and regional opportunities. We took part in the British Science Festival, the Oxford Science and Ideas Festival, and for three consecutive years we produced events for the ESRC Festival of Social Science. One of our ESRC events saw the installation exhibited within Coventry Cathedral – a venue that receives visits from thousands of tourists annually. Through our evaluation and curation feedback, we observed that our audience at the Cathedral was very different to those at science festivals, as most visitors to it came across I:DNA by chance when they were visiting the cathedral. This meant that we reached new audiences (other than arts/science enthusiasts), but also meant that the installation was interpreted differently, as it was described as ‘spiritual’ and ‘ethereal’ when in the cathedral setting.

We also secured a residency at Leamington Spa Gallery & Museum, which is a popular location for tourists and visitors to the area, as well as locals, and attracts people who would not necessarily choose to visit an installation of this kind. Our feedback for this venue suggested that our audience mainly consisted of people with an interest in art and local history and in this context, it was evaluated by visitors as a provocative contemporary artwork rather than a science-based educational piece.

As well as targeting events with high national profiles (e.g. British Science Festival), we targeted events that particularly resonated with the themes of I:DNA, such as the ‘Being Human’ theme as part of the Resonate Festival, Coventry City of Culture. The I:DNA residency at Royal Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum formed part of a larger exhibit (Picture of Health: Art, Medicine & the Body), marking the Gallery’s connection with art related to human health for over 20 years.

For our fringe events (poetry, theatre, artwork) we made specific efforts to broaden our audiences. We had a particular interest in engaging children and young people, as younger generations will increasingly be faced with ethical dilemmas around ‘genetic decision making’ (as adults), with the increasing incorporation of genetics into standard healthcare. The installation was targeted at an audience of 14+ years on account of the challenging themes addressed, and so to reach younger audiences, we needed to adapt our engagement strategy. We did this by focusing the engagement materials around one of the themes of the research appropriate for a younger audience – that of identity and its relationship to genetics, physical attributes, personality, and interests. A workshop was created whereby children would listen to a talk by a geneticist, then spend time creating artwork representing their identity on cards, which could then be slotted together (by local artist Tammy Woodrow) to form a sculptural artwork.

We took the workshop out to a local primary school where a year 6 class (10-11 year olds) spent one afternoon hearing an in-person talk by the geneticist and creating their artwork. This was supplemented by a Saturday drop-in event at Leamington Art Gallery & Museum. The talk by the geneticist was recorded and played on a loop for the children taking part at the Gallery drop-in workshop

To increase the range of engagement activities, we also ran participatory poetry workshops, which were open to anyone with an interest in written/spoken creative arts. Our creative collaborators, STAMP CIC, and local poet (Nigel Hutchinson) ran two workshops at the Leamington Spa Gallery. Participants spent time viewing the I:DNA installation before creating their own poetry inspired by what they had seen, supported by Nigel. These workshops were followed by an evening performance (including a talk by Felicity) at Warwick arts Centre, which showcased some of the contributions from our participants.