Tag Archives: exhibitions

Climate Stories at the Science Museum

Coal at the Science Museum

Pots of coal, Changing Climate Stories, Science Museum

The Science Museum has a new art/ history of tech exhibition exploring issues of energy and climate change: Climate Changing Stories.

It mixes a few re-interpretations of old exhibits with some dazzling new installations. It weaves through the museum as a whole, plotting new narratives, connecting previously separate spaces. It plays with ideas of pasts, futures and futures past. It left me with a big grin and a head full of ideas. It comes highly recommended.

It’s also sponsored by Shell. Ignore that for a moment though, I don’t want it to get in the way of the many good aspects of the exhibition. Park it at the back of your mind – just as you might on a visit to the museum – and I’ll return to it later.

The trail starts at the front of the museum, in the history of energy hall, inviting you to think of the immediate impact of the Industrial Revolution on the 18th century countryside. This look back to past environmental change is echoed a couple of floors up, in a room next to the energy futures gallery, with a film about a flood in a seaside resort in the early 1950s which juxtaposes the optimism of growth of the town due to holiday-makers in the 1930s with this flood, explicitly playing with our sense of flooding as a future narrative of climate change in the process. There is a similar display near the Agriculture Gallery, this time on air pollution. Its 1952 news reels describe smog as the “greatest mass murderer of recent years”, calling for cleaner fuels. It’s futuristic in a way, abeit an old future, long gone now. It is also current, echoing 21st century debates about slightly less visible air pollution.

The Making of the Modern World gallery has some of the best pieces. I loved artist Yao Lu’s beautiful series of photos; made to look like traditional Chinese landscapes but actually mounds of rubbish covered in green netting. There’s also the incredible toaster project and their resident spaceship now comes with added note on Stewart Brand and the blue marble. The highlight, however, has to the electric London taxi cab from 1897, in the centre of the Wellcome Wing. We might think of electric cars as something futuristic but, again, the museum is keen to stress they’ve been the future for quite a long time now (nice Wired post on this).

One might be wary of the museum’s steampunkish play with narratives of climate change. The line on the BBC preview that the gallery explores how “humans have adapted to keep pace with our changing world” is the sort that can set some environmentalists’ hair on end, as if climate change is just business as usual. I don’t think the museum frames it that way, personally, though other eyes might read it differently. It’s probably worth noting that the end point of the piece on coal was a move to greater regulation, not a techno-fix (although there is also an exhibit on fictional world-saving GM crops).

Moreover, for me, exhibits like the electric cab help show that technology is the consequence of choices, that the world might have been different and, if we let it, provoke us to make better choices today. That cab reminded me of a great bit in Alexis Madrigal’s history of American green tech, Powering the Dream, about how a betting man at the end of the 19th century would have expected transport in the US to have gone in the direction of electrically powered public transport, not fossil-fuelled private vehicles. As Maggie Koerth-Baker puts it in her review of the book: “Energy isn’t just what it is. Energy is what we have decided we want it to be”.

electric london taxi cab, 1897

An electric London cab, from 1897! 1897!

Brilliant as many aspects of this exhibition are, I left the museum feeling something was missing. I realised later it was the topic of oil. Which is a shame considering their lead sponsor is such an expert on the topic.

My mother accused me of being snide with that comment, which is not my intention. I genuinely think it’s a shame. That’s in earnest, not sarcasm. I actually want to see more about the oil industry in museums, or at least more than logos.

Shell have a fascinating history (official version). Did you know they are called Shell because they started off as shop that sold seashells? An antique dealer in the 1830s realised there was a fashion for using shells in interior design. They were so popular he had to import them from abroad, laying the foundations for an international import/export business which – via trading of rice, silk, china, copperware, sugar, flour and wheat – by the 1890s was transporting oil. An exhibit based on that could be ace. You could even, like the electric car, use stories of how the world wasn’t always how it is now to consider how it might be in the future; have an interactive asking visitors what different products Shell could trade instead, for example.

So great as this new Science Museum trail is, you might want to stop by Tate Britain too and catch the Patrick Keiller Robinson Institute exhibition which has a bit on the history of BP (till October 14th, free, sponsored by Sotheby’s).

Postscript: A new campaign Science, Unstained aims to ask questions about the sponsorship of science communication. I’m happy to say I’m part of the group behind it. I wouldn’t have registered the URL in my name otherwise. There are several other people involved though, and it’s up to them to decide for themselves if they want to be open about this. It’s just a few 100 words on a blog at the moment and we’re not sure how it’ll develop yet. You can follow it, or even get involved, if you’re interested. Or not, if you’re not.

Not Drowning London

Thames Barrier park, North Bank.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Thames Barrier Park. It’s one of my favourite parts of London, even if there is something spooky about it. Perhaps because there is something spooky about it. Nestled in a rather bleak bit of East London, it’s a very still place. There’s a cafe in the park and often some children playing. The Docklands Light Railway rattles behind it, in its slightly old fashioned futuristic way. There’s the Tate and Lyle factory – complete with giant tin of golden syrup stuck to the side – just to the West. But the overall feeling of the place is quite peaceful.

And yet, there are few places which, for me, sum up the power of both nature and technology. Or, to put it another way, the power of the Earth, and our ability as humans to do stuff with and to that Earth. It’s a calm spot to consider the violent destruction a flood might cause and how we may have made such floods more likely in the future. It’s also an invitation to feel grateful for our ability to protect at least some parts of our world from such hazards, at least for the time being. The river, trees, a park, a cement factory on the opposite bank and, of course, those silver triangles of the Barrier itself. The space is cultivated to consider that symbolism, with paths and gardens placed quite strategically juxtaposing and showing the complex blurs between nature and technology, security and danger. See, for example, the way the trees have been planted to echo the Barrier in the photo above. I think it showcases the shiny power of the Barrier, but in a rather humble way, one that seems open to questions.

I was maybe especially spooked by the Barrier as, the day before, I’d been to the Drowning Earth exhibition at Somerset House, a chilling photography project about the human consequences of flooding. I should probably note that the Thames Barrier dates back from the 1950s and is designed to protect central London from floods based on the best data available in the 1970s. It’s not a response to more modern worries about global warming. There’s the Thames Estuary 2100 project for larger and more long term flood defenses.

According to the Independent, the photographer behind Drowning World, Gideon Mendel, said wanted to show there was more to the iconography of climate change than polar bears. Much as I like a good polar bear photo, I know what he means. Another photography exhibition which presents a slightly different view of issues surrounding climate change, albeit causes rather than consequences, is Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s chronicle of our relationship with oil (at Photographer’s Gallery till July 1st, Free).

The blurb when you enter the exhibition says Burtynsky’s interested in the subcultures of oil, but it’s hard to leave without thinking how intimately linked we are even to the more alien looking landscapes he captures. It’s also quite striking the way he plays with shape, colour and light to represent spaces reminiscent of an abstract painting but, precisely because they are not abstract, with an added pathos. There’s the regularity of a car park in Houston or motorcycling parking at a Kiss concert in North Dakota. Curls of the road by the slightly futuristic Nanpu bridge exchange, China, show the movement of the cars as well sharp lines of the roads. Similarly, there’s a delicacy as well as a smoggy growl to the interlacing grey curves of a highway in LA. Long lines of pipes of Canadian oil refineries or the gold, brown, yellow and silvery-grey of oil fields Belridge in California and Socar Fields in Baku, Azerbaijan. The latter show tall, slightly skeletal machines at work: robot alien monsters about to charge, they made me think of Star Wars. A haunting series in a breaker’s yard in Chittagong, Bangkadesh shows a glorious, hopeful sunrise over huge slabs of old ships. I also enjoyed the patterns provided by detritus of mass production: crushed oil filters and a pile of wheels. The highlight for me, however, had to be the maple-leaf gold and reds pulled out in a shot of Alberta oil sands. There was a similarly clever use of colours in an image of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which brought out greens to make the oil look like landmasses on a longer shot from a satellite. The Alberta image was something extra though, projecting a sense of national identity along with nature over multinational industry.

I posted a link to a Guardian gallery of the Burtynsky exhibition on twitter, highlighting a line in their commentary that suggests the works offer a reframing of the notion of the sublime. In reply, climate campaigner Lawrence Carter suggested that with Burtynsky’s photos we’re awed at our capacity to destroy the finite, rather than comprehend infinite. I don’t have an answer to this but I think it’s an interesting point which Carter puts neatly. As I’ve argued before, there are ambiguities in a technological reframing of the sublime. I think science and technology of the last few hundred years offer new ways of thinking about long stretches of time and space, seemingly infinite or actually so; in particular our ability as humans to comprehend nature and have forms of control over it. Whether any such comprehension and control is something all humans can share, or is only for a privileged few, is something we should all keep an eye on. Or maybe we’re all collectively heading for the finite.

Drowning World closes today, but some of the images are at the Guardian or see Mendel’s website for more. You can visit Thames Barrier Park by Pontoon Dock DLR, or pop over to the other side of the river for the Barrier’s information centre. The Burtynsky Oil exhibition is on at the Photographer’s Gallery, near Oxford Circus for the next month (free). I can also recommend visiting Nick Cobbing’s website, especially the glacial stories and piece on the brown coal of Konin.