A window onto science: representing scientific concepts in art and the potential of the diorama
Julie Light, Artist, with Paul Beales, Associate Professor, School of Chemistry, University of Leeds
In March 2020, as the first Covid lockdown suspended many activities across the UK, I found myself with a new commission asking what it means in practice to respond to scientific concepts in an artwork. Should the artwork depict scientific phenomena in a representational way? Is it necessary for an artwork to be scientifically ‘accurate’? How do different materials and techniques convey scientific ideas or ‘challenge’ them? And how do social, industrial or institutional factors that support the science play into the process?
These questions felt very real for me and my collaborators at the University of Leeds. The previous week, while Covid-related anxieties rose about hand-shaking, mask-wearing and social contact more generally, I had been on my first visit to the University labs to learn about their ground-breaking research into the action of peptides on membranes in the search to develop novel cancer treatments. The lab visit was the first step in making an EPSRC-funded artwork commission to respond to the science behind this project. The artwork would be displayed at St James’ University Hospital in their Clinical Research Facility (CRF), bringing into consideration practical and ethical considerations that might not apply in other settings. Now, in my studio at the start of lockdown, I needed to work out what ‘responding’ to a specific scientific research project in an artwork meant in practice.
It is my experience that those working in the field of interdisciplinary art and science dedicate a lot of thought and discussion to the nature of art/science collaborations. But beginning this project I found little material, theoretical or practical, to act as an exemplar of the process of portraying scientific concepts in art or discussing the key areas of decision-making involved, either from the artists’ or scientists’ perspectives. Through this case study of the development of Diorama 1, I examine the strategies we used to address science in the art and to highlight areas that emerged for us as particularly interesting, complex or potentially problematic. To do so, I have drawn on my recollections and notes of conversations that took place as the artwork developed, particularly discussions between Paul Beales, the instigator and research leader of the project, and myself. Paul and I also revisited some key questions once the artwork was complete, and several quotes here are drawn from that conversation.
Why create an artwork about science concepts?
“We are seeking an artist to work with us to develop an artwork in response to our research that will serve as a means of accessible science communication with patients and the public [and who is]… able to use their art to engage an audience and inspire fascination and amazement in scientific concepts and principles”. So stated the open call to artists for the commission. The brief also put some boundaries around what the team wanted to see as an outcome: “We are not looking for something that is illustrative…. The artwork should be an artistic response to our science that captures an interest and fascination for the research”. There are many reasons to create an artwork engaging with scientific research, but in this case the artwork was commissioned with a clear purpose in relation to the public engagement goals of the main research project.
We found we could break down the public engagement aspiration into three principal ideas. The first was simply that an artwork would literally place the project in a new space in front of a more disparate range of people. Second was the idea of the artwork acting as a focal point for curiosity and to enable people to generate questions about the science. Thirdly, it could potentially help to break through people’s expectations about their science literacy. Paul’s experience of similar art projects with The Superposition, an interdisciplinary art and science collective in Leeds, led him to observe that “an illustration of a piece of science, … is still part of the science. An artwork acts almost as a tool, it kind of draws people in and it allows us to explore different things that a person is comfortable with, rather than talking at them about something very technical”. These three ideas, as well as Paul’s desire to engage people at an early stage of the project, reflect a more widespread will to embrace citizens as an integrated part of the process of developing emerging science, a movement in which artists and social scientists are acknowledged as having a role to play.
In the light of these factors, the artwork would need to be ‘about’ the science to fulfil the brief. To me, this meant that there should be visual references in the final piece to scientific phenomena that the team were researching. It did not have to be immediately clear what these references ‘meant’ at first sight, but they should be sufficiently related to the research content to trigger appropriate questions, to which the answers would make some sort of sense in the context of the artwork. The selection panel had been eager to choose an artist who would delve into the project rather than view it from afar, so this was in line with their expectations. It was in this context that I went to visit the labs.
Creating a space between illustration and invention?
I spent a couple of days with the team at the labs both at the University of Leeds site and at St James’ Hospital, watching experiments, looking at confocal microscope images and attending team meetings. Gradually, through the team’s hard work, I began to get a grip on some of the key ideas that they were investigating. Repeating themes emerged when I looked back at my notes and photographs after the visit: handwritten calculations appeared again and again in my images; the spherical forms of vesicles, cells and cell masses recur; ideas of perforation and separation multiply in my notes. Some of this stemmed from the preoccupations of the team at that moment, some from my own fascination, as an outsider, with their process. Many of those themes became the basis of my creative investigations.
Back in my studio I started to experiment with visual references and sculptural forms inspired directly by images of ‘vesicles’ and ‘phase separation’. I decided to use a glass-making technique called ‘pate de verre’ to create the main elements of my sculpture, testing out textures and playing with methods that might offer visual allusions to the ideas I had been introduced to. I abandoned as a failure an experiment to use incompatible glass types in the kiln to try to force a separation through chemical reactions; instead I tried incorporating different grain sizes and shapes within the base glass from which I created spherical, vesicle-like forms, pre-treating some glass in the kiln to change its appearance from the base glass before integrating it into the broader structures. The surfaces of the ‘vesicles’ that emerged were, to my artist’s mind at least, analogous to the domains on a cell membrane occurring with phase separation.
A further visit to meet with the team in May to discuss how the artwork was developing was impossible due to coronavirus restrictions, so sharing ideas and getting feedback was all taking place online. In my initial drawings of the overall piece, I had integrated an element I began to think of as the ‘z stack’. This element, constructed of a number of textured glass ‘slices’ was a reference to the process by which confocal microscope images are computationally constructed into three-dimensional forms. When I showed samples of the glass pieces to the team, I was delighted to discover that the surface textures of the slices were, for them, also visually reminiscent of the top-down view of some experimental samples I had not seen.
Every artwork develops and progresses differently, so I am sharing these examples of idea development not as a blueprint, but as examples of strategies I used to seek out a creative result that was neither pure illustration of, nor totally unconnected to, the scientific concepts to which I was responding. Reflecting back, I have found that the model developed by art educationalist Julia Marshall is an extremely useful way to codify the options available to artists to approach this task. Of the five strategies she outlines – depiction, projection, reformatting or recontextualisation, mimicry and metaphor – I would suggest that at least three of these formed part of my exploration (depiction, metaphor and reformatting). The pierced ‘vesicles’ function to some extent as depiction (described by Marshall as “rendering a subject from observation”). The ‘z stack’ and experimentation with different glasses to act as an analogy to phase separation might fall more into a metaphorical approach.
Obviously, both depiction and metaphor are also widely used in conveying scientific concepts within science disciplines; but as Brett Wilson, founder member of a research group bringing together artists and scientists to explore commonalities, observes, “Science has only belatedly appreciated the role metaphors play in constructing its own conceptual models, despite the fact that…. visual metaphors have long been powerful conceptual tools for visual artists”. Metaphors used by artists from outside the discipline, however, might be expected to throw a different light on a subject to those created within the discipline. As Paul reflected when discussing the project, “You can be in a bit of an echo chamber when you’re in a scientific community. There’s a lot of set ideas within your field and just breaking out of that and talking to people who think completely differently…. allows you to wander out of this ‘ring fence’ of what your field thinks is appropriate.”
For this artwork, though, reformatting and a related recontextualisation became my dominant strategies for responding to the scientific concepts while satisfying my aesthetic intentions, and this took the form of presenting the content as a diorama.
The diorama as a “window into another world”?
Reformatting and recontextualization bring meanings from one discipline to another. “The recontextualising effect of reformatting is amplified when the format imposed is foreign to the subject”, says Marshall. The idea of this artwork as a diorama came about as an artistic strategy to recontextualise the science and simultaneously as a response to a set of practical issues. It was clear early on in discussions with the broader team, which included the Director and the then Manager of the CRF at St James’, that the site identified as the long-term home for the artwork within the CRF required that the artwork be easy to clean and, preferably, to make sterile. Covid concerns heightened this priority, and any textured or potentially absorbent surfaces would be better under the cover of a case or cabinet. Having seen many glass sculptures rendered inconspicuous by being placed in an unforgiving or unlit cabinet, I resolved that a case would form an integral part of the design of the artwork, ideally with illumination built into the scheme. Inspiration came from research into museum display practices, something which has informed some of my past projects such as the Museum of Extraordinary Objects (https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/research-culture/changing-expectations/museum-of-extraordinary-objects/) with The Royal Society. For the current project, I realised that the form and function of the diorama, along with its historic and cultural meanings, would fulfil a range of artistic aims for me as I continued to explore those early questions around what it means in practice to respond to scientific concepts in an artwork.
The diorama has a long history as a museum display technique, becoming relatively widespread in the late nineteenth century and continuing at the height of its popularity until the mid-twentieth century, before falling out of use from the 1980s onward. Mainly known for displaying natural history or ethnographic exhibits but also used, for example, in the Science Museum in London to show agricultural practices, the diorama combines three-dimensional models, organised naturalistically and set against a two- or sometimes three-dimensional ‘realistic’ background. Dioramas, whilst ostensibly being educational in purpose, offer more than straightforward learning. American Art specialist Rachael Z DeLue, referring to the seminal dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, notes that “Science and art… join forces to produce an experience that is equal parts education and fantasy, one that interweaves rational contemplation and imaginative projection”. Museum specialists Michael May and Marianne Achiam also observe that dioramas offer more than education. Starting from a position that “Museum practitioners and museum researchers know that dioramas work, we just don’t know how they work”, their research led them to speculate that spatially proximate objects and/or those that are visually similar in terms of shape, size or colour, are meaningfully grouped by the spectator and, taking into account the foregrounding and backgrounding of different elements, this allows people to extrapolate from viewing a diorama into creating narrative from it.
Unlike ethnographic or natural history displays, I was in control of the elements to be foregrounded as part of my diorama. Related colours, textures and surfaces created clear visual connections between the three ‘vesicles’ and the ‘z stack’, and the levels of perforation of the ‘vesicles’ could be read as a progression. During the design process, I also gave considerable thought to the three-dimensionality and grouping of the main elements of my diorama. My practice is based on a love of tactility and a belief that engagement with objects rather than two-dimensional images creates a fundamentally different type of experience and engagement for an audience. Andrew Nahum, writing about science displays in museums, notes “both formal education, and research, have privileged the two-dimensional, whether as texts, drawings or images, over the three-dimensional representation…. Models are direct and short circuit this, allowing a broader audience to comprehend a complex mechanism or arrangement.” And although a diorama is generally enclosed within its own cabinet, the idea of tactility can still come into play. As Ane Pilegaard says in her study of how vitrines work spatially, “vitrines have the ability to frame and direct focus in a way that enables a contemplative overview. At the same time, … as well as the possibility of touch, vitrines can also address a less optically dependent mode of perception, which could be understood in terms of haptic proximity”. In other words, although you cannot actually touch the three-dimensional components of a piece behind glass, a vitrine can nonetheless emphasise for viewers their physical presence and potential tactility.
Scale, as well as the possibility of touch, also acts to recontextualise. Dioramas tend towards the life sized in the case of displaying pre-existing exhibits, or may be specially built as miniaturised models of real or imagined scenes. When representing scientific concepts, scale may work inversely to this classic miniaturisation. Nano-scientist Chris Tourney and colleagues reflect on the impossibility of representing nano-bodies as they ‘look like’, because they are beyond the visual scale. They comment on the role artists may play to help visualise these unvisual entities. Although vesicles are within the range of visualisation, albeit only with the aid of a microscope, this diorama nonetheless involves a vast translation in scale, a recontextualization in its own right. After the diorama had been completed, Paul commented on the way that it had not only transformed the scale of the vesicles but had literally foregrounded them in relation to the research; within Diorama 1, research materials from the project form the backdrop to the three-dimensional elements.
Artefacts, accuracy and enhancement?
My interest in the social, political and cultural aspects of science made a diorama feel like the perfect vehicle to place the scientific concepts under investigation in the context of ideas from the research project itself. This would allow me to draw in materials and artefacts from the research process and culture as well as the science. A feature of a diorama is that it not only presents a scene but also freezes and encodes cultural information from the time and circumstances in which it was created, adding layers of meaning to the face value of the exhibit. “Dioramas are not just depictions of the natural world, but are cultural artefacts in their own right; windows into… debates about the relationship between man and the natural world and explorations of new technologies”, says Inbal Livne, Head of Collections at Powell-Cotton Museum, site of some exceptional natural history dioramas.
I discussed with the team using research materials that came directly from the project in the diorama and over the summer they generously provided me with a variety of resources. From these I was able to generate a collage of confocal microscope images, handwritten calculations and extracts from research papers. These provided reference points to ways in which data is collected as well as introducing to the artwork evidence of the role of human hands in the research. The text extracts, in particular, were important for me in that they nod to the world of academic and scientific publishing, a complex and – to my mind – very problematic industry that has a profound effect on who can access knowledge and at what cost.
Using actual research materials in a project commissioned in order to engage people in a specific research project made me very conscious of the ‘appropriateness’ of editing, enhancing or amending the images and raised questions for me about representing science ‘accurately’ within the artwork. I knew that I wanted to create certain effects aesthetically, and that using the research text and images ‘raw’ would not work from that perspective. Discussions with Paul on this subject put my mind at rest from a practical point of view; as long as the materials were being used for artistic purposes, he did not see this as problematic. Consequently, all the images that make up the background collage have been edited in some way and, although they still bear a resemblance to the original images, in some cases it is very close to the original material and in others much less so.
I am well aware that many scientific images used for the purposes of science rather than art are also enhanced or edited. While this might be, for example, to distinguish different structures in an image for communicative clarity, it can also be for aesthetic reasons. What makes a successful representation, in terms of accuracy or anything else, depends on the criteria used to evaluate it. Returning to the discussion of the artwork’s purpose, it is clear that faithful depiction was not the purpose of the piece, and that conveying a detailed ‘likeness’ to the subject matter was not a priority. Despite this, during the making of the ‘vesicles’ and ‘z stack’ elements, I continued to question what scientific ‘accuracy’ might mean in the context of this kind of artwork and what an artist’s obligations might be in this respect, if any.
Paul and I returned to the issue after the project was completed. Having already agreed that to create a detailed depiction of the exact scientific processes was to miss the point of making an artwork, we could not dismiss questions of accuracy altogether. We discussed some of the nuances, and Paul talked about how certain approaches to the research might have played out in light of the intended location for the piece; clearly there are sensitivities in having an artwork related to a disease in a clinical setting. In presenting the research in this context, it was not only the representation of the specific scientific concepts that were at stake – he felt it was also an issue that any outcome implied should neither be overly optimistic in terms of the potential for a new treatment, nor too unsettling in terms of the portrayal of the disease. And although these considerations were never a particular concern in relation to the Diorama, we nonetheless settled on a view that whilst a faithful depiction of scientific concepts was not required, the misrepresentation of a process, idea or its consequences would nonetheless be problematic.
Paul cited his experience with the media coverage of the research project when it was initiated. The peptide that was at the starting point of their investigation is drawn from the venom of a wasp – polybia paulista – and the story that was reported in some media outlets at that time suggested that the wasp venom could itself cure cancer, an explanation that is to comprehensively misunderstand the thrust of the research. Indeed, Paul and I had had conversations during the development of the artwork about whether there should be any allusion to the wasp in the piece. By the end of the process, the only reference is in some honeycomb-textured slices that form part of the ‘z stack’; I didn’t want to replicate the media’s misunderstanding.
“I think the core inspiration for the piece needs to have a foundation in the correct science” was Paul’s position. He went on to discuss his concern that a fundamentally misleading portrayal of the science in a piece designed to engage the public in science and innovation could never be in the public interest. He explained that one of the reasons that the team had wanted to select an artist who would engage deeply with the science, and for the artist to develop the piece in conversation with the researchers, was to create a balance whereby the artist had real freedom to create an artwork fully aligned with their creative practice, whilst not running the risk of their making a piece having misunderstood or misinterpreted the research in such a way as to mislead or confuse the potential audience. So, we concluded that while ‘accuracy’ might not be necessary, a successful artwork in these circumstances definitely had to be congruent with the principles underpinning the science.
Diorama 1 was completed in the late autumn of 2020, around the time that the UK emerged from the second covid lockdown. At the time of writing, it has yet to travel to its ultimate home in the CRF at St James’, once again due to pandemic-related restrictions. However, despite all the obstacles that covid has put in its way, the making of this artwork has provided a constructive opportunity to suggest some answers to the questions I faced at the outset about what it means to respond to, rather than illustrate, scientific ideas, how to deal with questions of accuracy, and how to draw social or cultural factors into an artwork that nonetheless is fundamentally focused on scientific phenomena. With public engagement goals motivating production and funding for a variety of interdisciplinary projects, I am sure that art and science will continue to interweave across boundaries with the aim of provoking curiosity, generating insight, and challenging and assisting the public understanding of science and innovation. It has been argued that scientific images are increasingly created through a series of ‘black boxes’ so that their means of production and relationship to their source materials is becoming more and more obscure. I would hope that, conversely, we can foster a thoughtful and transparent approach to how artworks are produced through interdisciplinary collaborations, so that we can collectively learn from our experiences.
 All quotations not otherwise referenced are taken from those sources.
 See ‘Art-Science Commission on Membrane Disrupting Peptides with Therapeutic Potential for Cancer | Deadline: 17/12/2019’. Accessed 20 April 2021. https://www.curatorspace.com/opportunities/detail/artscience-commission-on-membrane-disrupting-peptides-with-therapeutic-potential-for-cancer/3980.
 There is a separate conversation to be had about the role of artists in publicising or popularising science research and its outcomes, but as that is not the principal concern of this article I will not be debating those questions here.
 See ‘TheSuperpositionBook.Pdf’. Accessed 15 April 2021. https://thesuperposition.org/wp-content/uploads/TheSuperpositionBook.pdf.
 See Robinson et al for an overview, pp83-84 in Robinson, Philip A, Phil MacNaghten, Sarah Banks, Janie Bickersteth, Angela Kennedy, Yvonne Richardson, Sue Shaw, and Ingrid Sylvestre. ‘Responsible Scientists and a Citizens’ Panel: New Storylines for Creative Engagement between Science and the Public’. The Geographical Journal 180, no. 1 (2014): 83–88.
 Paul recalled the selection panel’s certainty that “one of the important things in the interview was that the artist was interested in engaged in the science and wanted to wanted to explore and talk and think and discuss the science”.
 For an outline of the initial ideas, see Leite, Natália Bueno, Anders Aufderhorst-Roberts, Mario Sergio Palma, Simon D. Connell, João Ruggiero Neto, and Paul A. Beales. ‘PE and PS Lipids Synergistically Enhance Membrane Poration by a Peptide with Anticancer Properties’. Biophysical Journal 109, no. 5 (1 September 2015): 936–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpj.2015.07.033.
 For a description of giant unilamellar vesicles, see Bhatia, Tripta, Peter Husen, Jonathan Brewer, Luis A. Bagatolli, Per L. Hansen, John H. Ipsen, and Ole G. Mouritsen. ‘Preparing Giant Unilamellar Vesicles (GUVs) of Complex Lipid Mixtures on Demand: Mixing Small Unilamellar Vesicles of Compositionally Heterogeneous Mixtures’. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Biomembranes 1848, no. 12 (1 December 2015): 3175–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbamem.2015.09.020. For more about ‘phase separation’ see ‘Lipid Bilayer Phase Behavior’. In Wikipedia, 13 December 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lipid_bilayer_phase_behavior&oldid=993912042.
 According to the Corning Museum of Glass Dictionary, “pate de verre is a material produced by grinding glass into a fine powder, adding a binder to create a paste, and adding a fluxing medium to facilitate melting. The paste is brushed or tamped into a mold, dried, and fused by firing.” Corning Museum of Glass | ‘Glass Dictionary’. Accessed 19 April 2021. https://www.cmog.org/glass-dictionary/p-te-de-verre.
 Marshall, Julia. ‘Five Ways to Integrate: Using Strategies from Contemporary Art’. Art Education 63, no. 3 (2010): 13–19.
 See p155, Wilson, Brett, Barbara Hawkins, and Stuart Sim. ‘Art, Science and Communities of Practice’. Leonardo 48, no. 2 (2015): 152–57.
 Jane Insley describes dioramas as “windows onto other worlds”; p28 in ‘Little Landscapes: Dioramas in Museum Displays’. Endeavour 32 (1 April 2008): 27–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.endeavour.2008.01.002.
 Marshall (2010) p16
 See Reiss, Michael. ‘The Use of Natural History Dioramas for Science Education: Science Educational Aspects’, 205–15, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-00175-9_14., p206 or Snoep, Nanette. ‘“Suggestions for a Post-Museum”’. In Across Anthropology, edited by Margareta von Oswald and Jonas Tinius, 324–35. Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial. Leuven University Press, 2020. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv125jqxp.22. , pp331-2 for more on the history of dioramas.
 See for example, Insley, Jane. ‘Little Landscapes: Agriculture, Dioramas and the Science Museum’. Icon 12 (2006): 5–14.
 See p3, DeLue, Rachael Z. ‘Art and Science in America’. American Art 23, no. 2 (2009): 2–9. https://doi.org/10.1086/605702.
 See p113, May, Michael, and Marianne Achiam. ‘Educational Mechanisms of Dioramas: Science Educational Aspects’, 113–22, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-00175-9_8.
 See Gomez, Michael A., Rafal M. Skiba, and Jacqueline C. Snow. ‘Graspable Objects Grab Attention More Than Images Do’. Psychological Science 29, no. 2 (1 February 2018): 206–18. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617730599.
 Nahum, Andrew. ‘Exhibiting Science: Changing Conceptions of Science Museum Display. 10.1057/9780230283145_9.’ In Science for the Nation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p7.
 Pilegaard, Ane. ‘Encountering the Vitrine Distance and Proximity Effects in Museum Vitrines’. Nordisk Museologi 2 (2017): 5–21, pp17-18
 Toumey, Chris, Brigitte Nerlich, and Chris Robinson. ‘Technologies of Scientific Visualization’. Leonardo 48, no. 1 (2015): 62–63, p62
 Livne, Inbal. ‘Nature and Culture in Museums: An Introduction’. Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 29 (2016): 3–10, p3
 See for example Elkins, James, ‘Who Owns Images: Science or Art?’ Circa, no. 97 (2001): 36–37. https://doi.org/10.2307/25563732.p37; or Knochel, Aaron. ‘Histochemical Seeing: Scientific Visualization and Art Education’. Studies in Art Education 54, no. 2 (2013): 187–90. https://doi.org/10.2307/24468184., p188; or Rochester Institute of technology, and Ted Kinsmann. ‘A Technique for Generating Colour Scanning Electron Microscope Images’. Infocus Magazine, 6 June 2014, 24–43.
 See, for example, Beimanavis’ discussion of Bas Van Fraasen on scientific representation for a longer discussion of what makes a successful scientific representation. Beimanavis, Petros. ‘Drawing Parallels’. Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 75, no. 4 (2019): 2229–46. https://doi.org/10.2307/26869268.
 See pp74-75, Reichle, Ingeborg. ‘Images in Art and Science and the Quest for a New “Image Science”’. Leonardo 48, no. 1 (2015): 74–75.
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