What happens when the public are invited to participate?

The David Attenborough building is the new home for The Museum of Zoology, (University of Cambridge) Cambridge Conservation Initiatives, and public art by Ackroyd and Harvey.buildingPublic engagement is a mantra for contemporary art. At the recent exhibition ‘Conflicted Seed and Spirit’ by Ackroyd and Harvey,  interaction was at the forefront of the works and presented a number of challenges.
conflicted_seeds_and_spiritThe ‘Red List’ of endangered species was faintly printed on a 7m long canvas, and the public were invited to choose one species, look it up on a tablet and then carefully write over the name. This process revealed the species both on the canvas and in the minds of the participants. As many of the species are obscure with names that tantalise, curiosity was quickly aroused to establish whether the choice revealed an insect, reptile, bird or mammal. Unfortunately, one person got rather carried away and instead of carefully tracing the script started in huge letters and then crossed it out, using the permanent marker pen provided. Other visitors to the exhibition were spotted investigating the pots of soil to find the seeds of the endangered trees. The beautiful crystalline whale skeleton was not exempt as another visitor started moving crystals in order to photograph them. It seems that where interaction is invited, the public take it to another level.  If the exhibition is a metaphor for the planet, then the clumsy and thoughtless behaviour of a small number of visitors is surely representative of humanities lack of regard for the planet.

images-1For Ackroyd and Harvey the process is important, the text work ‘Seeing Red ..Overdrawn’ is not completed and the data is always changing, as species become extinct and new ones are discovered. The work will be updated, reprinted and housed in the new building as an ongoing engagement.


The permanent artwork for the David Attenborough Building consist of two slate walls. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but the detail revealed is elegant and refined. The slate has been sourced directly from mines in Wales as a waste product. Each piece hand cut to an exact measurement, and laid edge to edge in stacks to create the artwork. Representing the sedimentary process that creates slate itself, each piece is positioned like a series of repeated drawn lines to reveal patterns. These patterns are archetypal shapes that can be read in different ways. One wall reveals the shape of a nautilus shell, the other reveals organic growth, reminiscent of ancient crinoids, unfurling fern like shapes. The cut, nibbled edges refract light giving the images a 3D effect. Within the slate are carefully concealed boxes for bats, and empty snail shells for solitary bees.

CCI is an interesting assortment of academics and practitioners brought together to develop innovative collaborative programmes addressing major challenges in conservation, biodiversity and ecosystems. It’s the first time there has been a clear interface between academia, business and local communities with local knowledge. This last element is the most important and represents a shift in attitude that will bring sustainable benefit to communities as well as ecosystems. It may well prevent some of the clumsy approaches to conservation in the past.

There is a synergy of artists and organisations in the choice of Ackroyd and Harvey to work with the CCI. If the basis of conservation is ‘right plant, right place’ then this is surely a case of ‘right artists, right organisation.’ The Ackroyd and Harvey involvement with the Botanic Garden, and CCI continues, who knows where the drawn line will take them this time.

This article was first published in Cambridge Business, part of the Cambridge News group, August edition.