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Horniman announces an exciting new collaboration with UAL

The new collaboration re-examines the Horniman’s Natural History collection through science-fiction.

Dr. Dan Byrne-Smith, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art Theory at Chelsea College of Arts, has been welcomed to the Horniman Museum and Gardens as our first Horniman Museum Art, Design and Natural History Fellow, in an exciting new collaboration between the Horniman and Camberwell, Chelsea, Wimbledon Graduate School, University of the Arts London (UAL).

Over the next three years, Dan will explore the Horniman’s acclaimed Natural History collection through the lens of science fiction, examining how audiences might engage with the collection to encourage and develop awareness around the environmental issues currently affecting the future of our planet.

A powerful force in popular culture, science fiction has the ability to engage and entertain and has a long history of imagining threats to the natural world, illuminating the dangers that will emerge in the future if not addressed in the here and now. Hollywood cinema offers bleak visions of environmental catastrophe, from 1970s films such as Silent Running and Soylent Green to the endless desert of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. These films all hold the audiences of today accountable for the depicted futures. 

Science fiction can also offer profoundly critical perspectives on relationships between humans and the natural world. These ideas can be traced back to the writings of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Today, authors such as Margaret Atwood and Nnedi Okorafor continue to explore the boundaries between humans and other life in their speculative works.

The topics that Dan will explore during his Fellowship include global climate change, the biodiversity crisis and species extinction, evolution and non-human networks. The Fellowship will also offer ways to imagine diverse environments through science fiction motifs and ideas and explore the challenges and risks they face.

Bringing together different facets of his research interests, Dan will explore the balance between seriousness and entertainment that science fiction offers, starting new conversations about the role of the Horniman’s Natural History collection, looking at new forms of engagement between people and collections and ultimately how those engagements can make a difference. Dan is considering a range of engagement options including blog posts, symposia on the theme of science fiction and natural history, and working directly with the Horniman’s audiences.

Science fiction is both a long-running research interest and a personal obsession for Dan. He says:

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by science fiction. Some of my earliest memories are of watching the original Star Trek episodes on a little portable TV and coming across Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey one Saturday afternoon on BBC2 blew my mind. The science fiction comic 2000AD also had a profound impact on how I see things. I’m definitely a fan and a nerd, I guess that is why I’m so passionate about this topic in my research and teaching. It’s been interesting to see how enthusiastically a lot of students that I’ve worked with have responded to science fiction. They see it is a way of exploring difficult questions and complex themes.

Dan’s previous research has explored different museums, histories of public display and the use of natural history collections. He says:

I’ve daydreamed about being able to develop a project with the Horniman since I was a student, so I’m really excited about this Fellowship. Now that it’s happening, I’m thinking about the potential to engage new audiences, to reach people outside of a lecture theatre.

Joanne Hatton, Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, says:

This is an exciting new venture for the Horniman and University of the Arts London, as both institutions set our sights on the future. Developing new ways of engaging with audiences and using our collections to generate new knowledge, bold visions and solutions for a sustainable future, is at the heart of our work. Natural History collections by their very nature encapsulate worlds past and present. They also illuminate the world’s future through the formation of new scientific knowledge, different perspectives and experiences that can make a real difference to the future prospects of the planet and all of our lives. We look forward to working with Dan to explore issues affecting the future of the planet through sci-fi eyes, discovering how our different worlds might collide.

Professor Malcolm Quinn, Director of Graduate School, Camberwell, Chelsea, Wimbledon Graduate School, University of the Arts London, says:

We are excited about this new partnership with the Horniman Museum and delighted with the appointment of Dan as the first Fellow. We look forward to seeing this partnership develop in alignment with UAL’s commitment, in its research strategy 2015-2022, to collaborations that through creative practice increase understanding of environmental change.