Category Archives: Musing

A brief thought, without trying to construct an argument or conclusion

Thank you, Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor is stepping down as director of the British Museum at the end of 2015.

What an awe inspiring interpreter of our common human history, our common humanity; and what a leader, who has reached across the world, transcending political barriers with a diplomatic skill that matches his cultural sensitivity.

If you have never read A History of The World in 100 Objects (or better, heard the original BBC Radio broadcasts, enriched by his resonant voice), then you are missing a real cultural gem.

After seeing what Neil MacGregor achieved with his equally monumental Germany: Memories of a Nation (such magnificent antidote to an often one-dimensional view of Germany in the British media), Germany could be in no doubt about their choice of him as leader of the Humboldt Forum.

We all wait expectantly to see the fruits of this new project.

New wonders await, for sure.

Thank you, Neil.

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Art and Science

As I think Richard Feynman once said … understanding how a rainbow works does not diminish its beauty but enhances it. But how do we bring together art & science for something as complex as memory?

The Ustinov Theatre has recently staged three exceptional ‘black comedies’  .

These three black comedies, translated from European playwrights, explore deep aspects of our lives in compelling ways.

The second of these was Florian Zeller’s new play The Father.  In innovative ways it gave the audience a visceral sense of the increasing fragmentation of memory as dementia takes hold, as only theatre can achieve.

Whereas a few years back Memory: an anthology, Edited by Harriet Harvey Wood & AS Byatt explored memory from intellectual perspectives including literary, scientific and cultural.

There is a quote from the great Spanish film director Luis Buñuel …

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing.”

The current scientific view of memory is that it is not some kind of library of images with an index, but a process whereby a memory is reconstructed in real time each time we recover it, and this makes it easy for us to conflate similar experiences by inserting or erasing fragments.  I disagree all the time with my wife about who was at that meal, in that town, who was present, etc.

I suppose this is why we retell important stories as families and tribes to reinforce our bonds and preserve these memories.

Perhaps because of the limitations in our scientific understanding of memory, it is easier to have this interplay between artistic, scientific and cultural perspectives.

But even when the science is mature, there is no reason why we cannot find ways to use art to enrich our understanding and enjoyment of the natural world: music, science fiction and paintings inspired by the solar system, for example.

I would go further.

Given the difficulty of society accessing science, with its special languages for each sub-discipline, the person in the street needs help.

People are actually curious about science and recognise its importance, so the role of the arts can be and perhaps should be elevated to improve accessibility.

As examples of this kind of collaboration:

  • Ben River’s film Slow Action – supported by Animate Projects and Bristol City – for the Wellcome Trust.
  • Hettie Griffiths’ animation in collaboration with Imperial College

Initiatives like the Wellcome Trust’s Art Award are so  important at bringing together artists and scientists.

I would be interested in other examples that others would like to share.

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