Bringing science and art together with the ‘Land of the Summer People’ project

Laurence Hawker – Engineering PhD candidate with the Water Informatics: Science and Engineering (WISE) CDT

The Somerset Levels and Moors are a low lying region prone to frequent flooding due to a range of environmental and human factors. The history of drainage and flooding in the Levels is rich and unique, yet its present condition is unstable and its future uncertain. Winter 2013-14 for example saw extensive floods in the Levels that attracted significant media attention and triggered debate on how such events can be mitigated in the future. The Land of the Summer People Science & Art project brings together engineering PhD students with local artists to increase public awareness and understanding of the Somerset floods. Scientific understanding and traditional engineering tools are combined with the artists’ creativity to prompt discussions about the area’s relationship with floods in a medium designed to be accessible and enjoyable.

After months of work, the day of the exhibition finally came. With a sense of curiosity mixed with a dose of trepidation, we met at the Exeter community centre to set up. As we were uploading the works and strategically positioning in the room, I was struck by the diversity of works – from drawings that exuded characteristics of medieval maps to mobile numbers engraved on stones that replied with informative quotes. Yet they all had a common theme in their interactivity showing how this common space between art and engineering can be used to convey a message. It was also interesting to note that despite the works being completed, the presentation and organisation within the room was carefully considered in order to not only look aesthetically pleasing but to also effectively communicate our work.

Comments expressed during the exhibition were encouraging with healthy interaction between the public and exhibitors. On the most part, the visitors seemed to understand the messages being conveyed, which was certainly aided by the artistic element. Visitor feedback was positive and certainly builds a solid foundation for future projects which is thankfully being planned. Apart from being informative, the exhibition created a friendly, relaxed atmosphere in which the presented concepts could be discussed.

On a personal note: whilst all of us are a part of our particular departments we are also part of a wider university and even society as a whole. Thus, sometimes we need to dismantle our boundaries and prejudices to other disciplines and areas to take in their ideas so more people can understand our research. Ultimately, if no one can understand our work it is futile. Thus, even though projects like the Land of the Summer People are not all always available, it is still easy to read papers or attend lectures from other disciplines, and I would highly encourage anyone to do this. Even from my limited experience of coming from a geography background into engineering, I can safely say that I have taken a lot from both disciplines. This doesn’t make me any better than someone who has stuck to one discipline, but it has opened my eyes to different practices and language that are used. You never know what you might learn!