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Preaching to the Choir

26 September 2013

The rather half-hearted excuse behind TEDxAlbertopolis, a day of lectures at the Royal Albert Hall (23 September), was to dispel the myth that science and art are somehow divided. They clearly aren’t and arguably never have been. The 13 expert speakers were well aware of this, and instead provided the audience with a kind of celebration of interdisciplinary dialogue.

Sprawling over five hours, but divided into bite-sized portions, the event made up for the lack of a main course with anecdote and sheer variety. I learned, for example, about the material culture of seaweed, which included a rather fetching hat. I discovered that there are more species of beetle than there are animals and plants combined. I also found out that you can fine-tune metal railings so that they will play The Girl from Ipanema, and that Sir Isaac Newton believed that Jesus came down to earth in order to operate the levers of gravity.

Amid this rich cornucopia of titbits, I was also struck by the contrasting approaches taken by Max Barclay and Hannah Redler, curators at the Natural History Museum and Science Museum respectively. While Barclay represented the truest continuation of the founding spirit of Albertopolis, it was Redler who most fully embraced the commingling of art and science. Barclay’s quest to find and classify the seemingly endless varieties of beetle revealed a truly Victorian thirst for knowledge. His was a bright-eyed tale of the museum as Ark and the curator as Noah. Redler, on the other hand, was one of the few speakers to problematise notions of scientific absolutism. Her work juxtaposes science with art, introducing a refreshing degree of uncertainty to both.

Overall though, the speakers were a mixed bag. The combination of nerves and a sincere desire to communicate created a frisson in the auditorium that was sadly not matched by much of the content. Indeed the best speaker of the afternoon was not even present. John Lloyd’s ‘An Inventory of the Invisible’ brought home how little we really know about the world with charm and wit. Sadly, this lively animation of a previous TED talk was cut short due to technical difficulties – perhaps art and science don’t coexist as well as we thought.

As the speakers never tired of reminding us, Albertopolis was the perfect venue for this event, comprising of the Royal Albert Hall, Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal College of Music, Science Museum, Imperial College London, Royal College of Art and Natural History Museum. But Albertopolis also harbours an un-acknowledged interloper. South Kensington is home to one of London’s largest congregations of the Church of the Latter Saints, better known as Mormons. In the context of Exhibition Road – directly facing both the Science Museum and Imperial College campus – the Mormon’s large and somewhat gauche statue of Jesus looks rather more defiant than welcoming.

Religion was the elephant in the hall, frustratingly ignored by most of the speakers. Albertopolis was founded on Christian principles, as well any desire for intellectual and cultural integration. Perhaps the acrimonious break up between art and religion would have produced a more lively debate. After all, in the last century science has spread its roots far and wide, claiming territory previously occupied by religion and philosophy, for its own.

There is a need for a more critical examination of science’s ongoing encroachment in the arts, but apparently neither I nor the speakers are up to the job. On the basis of what I heard at this event, science and art seem like contented bedfellows. Ultimately, TEDxAlbertopolis was an enjoyable exercise in preaching to the choir, myself included.

TEDxAlbertopolis took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 September 2013