Art and science, Frankenstein and Franklin

As part of my research as an Explorer Volunteer in the Art and Science of Exploration exhibition I ask visitors if they have any connection to the themes and objects of the exhibition. Some say yes. One couple told me how they live in the house that once belonged to one of Captain Cook’s crew, for example. Others say no. But I suspect that if you scratch the surface, most people are motivated to visit a museum because of a human desire to find connections, links between us, objects and other people. The Art & Science of Exploration illustrates this brilliantly, because it shows our human need to articulate things and experiences artistically.

With new research in the field of neuroscience, we are also able to see how our brains act when we are being creative. In my opinion you get a buzz when you visit museums, partly because you are finding connections, but partly because you are engaged in a creative process. Educational psychologist Paul Howard-Jones refers to a strategy (in The Educators, BBC Radio 4) called ‘unrelated stimulus’. Student drama teachers engaged in his research by using this strategy – finding connections between apparently unrelated objects – which was familiar to Surrealist Kurt Schwitters: he took the contents of his wife’s wastepaper bin and used it to create an artwork (a collage currently hanging in Tate Britain.) These students underwent brain scans and what this told them was that the most active part of the brain during this process was the part to do with control.

Howard-Jones argues that we need to exercise this level of concentration or control in our lives in order to sort the unrelated bits of rubbish, as well as in creating art. When the student teachers become aware of this activity in the brain they can then use this knowledge to further their future students  learning and harnessing of this brain power. So watching the neurons firing in the brain can literally make us learn to make ourselves more creative and, I would argue, more intelligent.

Howard-Jones also outlines how Royal College of Music students used ‘neuro-feedback’ to raise their final grades because they were able to learn how to get ‘in the zone’ by looking at brain scans taken when they were at their most creative. So by deploying certain strategies to get themselves back in the creative ‘zone’, they were able to further their creativity and some would argue, their intelligence. Art, creativity and science are inseparable.

Where do Frankenstein and Franklin come in to this theory? I have discovered several unexpected links in trips to other exhibitions lately, including this one: Mary Shelley’s book (original manuscripts on view in ‘Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination’ at the British Library) begins in the Arctic with a captain dreaming of finding a passage to the North Pole.

Next door to this exhibition in the British Library is ‘Lines in The Ice’, about Sir John Franklin and the search for the North-West Passage. Here I read how Captain John Ross’s first expedition to find the fabled passage set out in 1818 – which is the same year that Frankenstein was published. And the eponymous gothic Count in Dracula landed in Whitby, which is where Captain Cook started his career!

Belcher's Franklin Expedition 1852/4. Sledge party returning through water in the month of July. Drawing for plate 13 of a set of 14 lithographs published 1 May 1855

Belcher’s Franklin Expedition 1852/4. Sledge party returning through water in the month of July. Drawing for plate 13 of a set of 14 lithographs published 1 May 1855 


Whitby harbour

And Mary Shelley was holidaying with Lord Byron when she dreamt up Frankenstein, and Byron’s daughter is Ada Lovelace who was close colleague of Charles Babbage (whose Analytical Engine can be seen in ‘Ships, Clocks & Stars: the Quest for Longitude’, next door to here.) With neurons firing, we all experience the links between art and science, we just have to look.

Blogpost by Mercy Sword, Explorer Volunteer, The Queen’s House