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The Art of Innovation opens at the Science Museum

  • The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter examines the fascinating and intertwined relationship between artists and scientists over last 250 years 
  • This major free exhibition pairs objects of scientific discovery with art by Boccioni, Constable, Hepworth, Hockney, Turner and contemporary artists Cornelia Parker and Conrad Shawcross
  • The exhibition highlights how vital imagination is to both artists and scientists, exploring twenty interactions between art and science through the textiles, film, photography, paintings, sculptures, models and scientific objects produced
  • The Art of Innovation opens on 25 September 2019 and runs until 26 January 2020
  • In partnership with BBC Radio 4 a twenty-part radio series will air from 23 September, with an accompanying book published by Bantam Press

The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter invites visitors to discover how artists have been inspired by scientific ideas and explore why art is crucial to understanding our scientific legacy. Providing a fresh perspective on technological and scientific change through the lens of culture, the exhibition places objects of scientific discovery next to the artworks they inspired or provoked.

Through four sections and twenty stories, the exhibition examines how we have questioned our relationship with society, our bodies, the environment and found patterns in nature, as we continue to interpret and explore the world around us. Visitors to the exhibition will be greeted by a painting that almost single-handedly defines the scientific enlightenment, Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on an Orrery, displayed alongside the Science Museum Group’s own scientific instruments and rare books from the eighteenth century. 

In Sociable Science, the exhibition’s opening section, visitors can discover the interaction between scientific progress and social change. Hockney’s Sun on the Pool, Los Angeles, 1982, on loan from the artist, can be seen next to two early Polaroid cameras developed by Edwin Land. Both Land and Hockney have a fascination with human visual perception. Land was an amateur scientist with an artistic vision, whose research and development of instant images revolutionised the tools of photography, influencing the work of contemporary artists and ultimately enabling Hockney to create the artwork on display. A stunning mauve-dyed skirt and jacket from 1862 is also on show. This early example of the first synthetic dye in use is rarely displayed due to the dye's instability. Visitors can explore how the quest for revolutionary dyes and fabrics impacted society, from the reaction of the arts and crafts movement to artificial pigments, illustrated by a beautiful cloth sample by C.F.A Voysey, to the 1951 film The Man in the White Suit which reflected public fears around new synthetic fibres such as Nylon, an early sample of which is on display. 

How machinery has both enhanced and threatened the human body is explored in the second section, Human Machines, featuring L.S. Lowry’s A Manufacturing Town alongside a double-dialled clock, both from the Science Museum Group Collection. Clocks often feature in Lowry’s work and this unusual example demonstrates the impact of the Industrial Revolution on working people. Used at Park Green Mill in Macclesfield, the lower dial shows the actual time while the upper dial was connected to the mill’s waterwheel. If the waterwheel ran slowly, the clock would show how much time workers were expected to make up. Also in this section is an 1890s Singer safety bicycle, which helped usher in a new age of social mobility, displayed alongside Umberto Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Cyclist, a loan from the Estorick Collection, which help explore how the Futurist movement responded to this technology. 

The third section, Troubled Horizons, examines how both art and science have been used to appreciate, study and transform the landscape around us. Turner's Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway demonstrates modernity and the transformation of life in Britain that the railways would bring. The painting features the Firefly locomotive, which at the time was the world’s fastest way to travel. An intricate model of the Firefly locomotive, made of rosewood, brass and copper, is displayed next to Turner's iconic painting. Visitors will also see a monumental painting by James Nasmyth of the Moon, created from hundreds of observations, which is on public display for the first time since the Great Exhibition of 1851 where it attracted the attention of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. Nasmyth used artistic tools and new techniques, including plaster models and photography, to create ground-breaking images that changed how scientists saw the Moon but also raised questions about truth in science and art.

The final section, Meaningful Matter, looks at how both artists and scientists have sought to better understand and study the natural world and explores the tools used to capture the unseen. Visitors can study the lesser-known work of photographic pioneer Anna Atkins. Atkins hand-made cyanotype photograms of algae, self-publishing the first photographically illustrated book, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, in 1843. The process had been invented a year earlier by Sir John Herschel, with the brilliant blue of the cyanotype prints providing its more common name: the blueprint. Anna’s book, once owned by photographer William Henry Fox Talbot, can be seen in the exhibition alongside Talbot’s own photographic studies of botany, both from the Science Museum Group Collection. This section also features ethereal sketches of clouds, made in the early 1800s by Luke Howard who was the first to scientifically classify and name the clouds. These works of art and science sit alongside John Constable’s Study of sky and trees, likely painted as part of his ‘skying’ expeditions on Hampstead Heath. 

The exhibition ends with the science of Einstein's general theory of relativity and the art it inspired. Visitors can see a gyroscope from Gravity Probe B, an experiment staged in space to precisely test Einstein’s theory in 2004-5. At the time, the gyroscope’s niobium-coated balls were the most perfect spheres ever manufactured. On the wall are three photographs taken by Cornelia Parker when artist in residence at the Science Museum in 1999. Called Einstein’s Abstracts, these show highly magnified chalk letters written by Einstein on a blackboard as part of a lecture on relativity given in 1931. Seen up close, the dusty chalk grains and black background resemble photographs of space and were fundamental for Parker in understanding Einstein’s complex science.

Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, said: ‘This is a timely exploration of how artists and scientists have made sense of the world around them. For the first time, important art and scientific objects from our own collection have been brought together with internationally significant loaned artworks to share fresh insights into art, science and innovation. I encourage you all to visit this stunning exhibition and indulge in these beautiful objects of scientific discovery and art.’

Dr Tilly Blyth, Head of Collections and Principal Curator, Science Museum, said: ‘Only by studying artistic and scientific endeavour today, and seeing them as part of the same culture, can we reveal the creativity and imagination that is essential for humankind to aspire to be better, to understand more, and to dream.’

The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter opens at the Science Museum on Wednesday 25 September and runs until Sunday 26 January 2020. The exhibition is free to enter, with tickets available online and in the museum.  

The BBC Radio Four series, presented by Sir Ian Blatchford and Dr Tilly Blyth will be broadcast from 23 September, with all twenty episodes available on BBC Sounds. An accompanying book published by Bantam Press and authored by Sir Ian and Dr Blyth delves further into the twenty stories featured in the exhibition. 

Part of the Science Museum Group