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I:DNA - Putting on an event


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.

Putting on an event:

There were various practical issues to consider when organising our tour.

Deciding on locations

There are various online resources which list festivals held in the UK (e.g. British Science Association, British Arts Festivals Association) and you can sign up for alerts for these, bearing in mind that many finalise their programmes a year in advance. Similarly, many art galleries plan their exhibits some years in advance which can make exhibiting in these locations difficult for time limited projects. For example, our initial conversation with Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum took place nearly two years before I:DNA was exhibited there. We also considered local venues that we could hire to show the installation independently, or as part local festivals (e.g. Coventry Cathedral for ESRC FoSS, Fargo Village for BSF). This process was labour intensive, involving searching online and calling venues to assess suitability, feasibility, and cost.

One important consideration when choosing a venue is how the physical location will alter the way that visitors experience exhibitions. For example, we exhibited I:DNA within large open plan spaces, including the foyer of Millennium Point in Birmingham and the main nave at Coventry Cathedral. Visitor feedback of the experience differed when compared to our smaller venues, where the large sculpture (which was 3m x 4m x 6m) filled the room and became more imposing, such as within the small (circular) multi-faith chaplaincy, and a Methodist chapel (IF Oxford). Interestingly, in the Cathedral, visitors picked up on resonance between the singing in the soundscape and their surroundings and questioned whether the installation had religious themes. When we exhibited at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, I:DNA was housed in the main gallery room surrounded by other contemporary artworks (e.g. prints by Damien Hirst) and so was viewed within the context of a contemporary artwork, with some visitor feedback focussing on the artistic quality rather than the scientific content.

Venue and event accessibility

As our installation concerned social and ethical debates around health and disability it was particularly important for us that all aspects of it were accessible to visitors. We therefore ensured that our venues had lifts (if I:DNA was not displayed on the ground floor), that there was room to comfortably navigate the installation using a wheelchair, and ensured that there were no trip hazards for people with mobility or vision impairment. Our soundscape had subtitles for anyone with a hearing impairment.

Once the tour resumed after the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, we were keen to ensure that our activities were as accessible as possible to those clinically vulnerable and those who were unable – or did not yet feel comfortable – to attend in-person events. Our poetry and children’s craft workshops were hybrid events, as was the poetry and spoken word event. Having numerous films about the installation on our website, as well as the video/soundscape, meant that people could get a sense of the installation without visiting it in-person.

While we had good uptake for our online events, however, we did not have as good a rate of feedback via the online forms, or tangible signs of active engagement (e.g., poor submission rate of children’s artwork completed at home, few feedback forms for online content despite high viewing figures). For any future online or hybrid events we would re-evaluate how to better assess engagement, for example, taking the emails of participants and contacting them directly for feedback after the event, or conducting a real-time feedback poll at the end of an engagement activity.

Practicalities, health & safety

There were many practical considerations related to moving and assembling the physical I:DNA installation (e.g. lift size and capacity, door width). The sculpture was designed in such a way that it could be taken apart and moved in sections, though this did add to the time required to assemble and disassemble the whole installation. Some venues required very specific measurements of the sculpture, including weight, so that they could check it did not exceed the capacity for the venue floor. Similarly, we had to ensure the vehicles hired to move the installation had appropriate weight capacity. We used our first event, at the Chaplaincy in the University, to pilot all aspects of installing, curating, and dismantling the installation.

A health and safety assessment was required for every event and location. We produced a standard health and safety template – with the help of our department Health and Safety Advisor and with reference to the hazard grid – which could be used to populate event forms or as a standalone document where a venue did not have their own proforma. Hazards relate to all aspects of the installation when open to the public, but also when potentially accessible by the public. For example, due to health and safety concerns over people climbing the sculpture, I:DNA was always curated when open to the public. When not open to the public, it had to be in a restricted access location, for example, a locked room, or have safety barriers around it and be supervised by venue staff (e.g., Cathedral, Millennium Point).

Many festivals have their own insurance, especially if you are using their venue, but if this is not the case then it is important to ensure adequate insurance is in place.

Project management

Ensuring that all of the practical aspects were considered was a time intensive exercise and made the tour both resource intensive and logistically challenging. Planning a tour of this kind requires organisation and communication skills. The project management of the tour was conducted by one of the researchers, but the whole team had regular project meetings (in-person and via MS Teams), where minutes were taken and circulated afterwards to ensure that everyone was aware of who was conducting which task and by what date. Open and regular communication was key. In between meetings, any communication via email was copied to a resource email account to be kept for reference. A tour venue template document was created and held on our shared MS Teams space so that everyone could access it and make changes to it as needed.

Volunteers for curation and involvement

Given the resource intensive nature of touring and curating I:DNA, we advertised for volunteers to assist with curation at some of the venues and also to feature in its creation (e.g. to be one of the ‘faces’ for our filmed portraits). We advertised internally within the University (departmental and University wide newsletters, and social media) and externally (e.g., social media, local interest groups). WIE also have a network of people interested in public engagement opportunities. These efforts resulted in several volunteers attending for filming, and two students who assisted with curation of the installation at the Chaplaincy.

External contractors

Our main collaborator, STAMP CIC, was already an approved supplier with the University, but we nevertheless needed a sub-contract to be drawn up with them to enable them to work with us, and this proved to be a lengthy process.

STAMP CIC, took on the management of all other sub-contractors, for example, Entify, who built the installation. This reduced the contracts that needed to be drawn up directly with the University, but it did also mean losing an element of control over the decision-making and outcomes in respect of these contracts.