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Resurrecting the lost Department of Plant Sciences

The result of a two year collaboration with King's College London, installation artists Ewan Forster and Chris Heighes created an evocative three-room art installation at the Inigo Rooms earlier this year in response to the university’s abandoned Plant Sciences Department laboratories in Herne Hill. The project was presented by King’s Cultural Institute as part of the College’s efforts to become a creative crucible for the cultural and creative industries.

As a tribute to a remarkable building and an examination of the practice and personalities that inhabited it, Forster & Heighes re-tell a particular chapter in the history of the College's scientific teaching and research through installation; bringing the spirit and substance of one of the College’s suburban outposts back to the centre of the city and reconnecting it with the contemporary university.

Here, the artists explain how they re-told the story of this lost department.

Image: a glasshouse was brought from the department buildings at Herne Hill. The building's floor plan has been etched onto the glass.Glasshouse from King's Plant Sciences DepartmentChris: We were very interested in the environments and the whole physical relationship of learning. We think we live in a modern time, but quickly our methods of teaching and technology change and those environments become sort of redundant. Then, what do we do with them? As you move forward, how do you deal with the past? Taking objects (such as glasshouses, laboratory benches, plant specimens, and so on) from the buildings at Herne Hill into a gallery environment gave us a clearer moment to reconsider them.

Ewan: I was fascinated by these buildings as repositories of great ideas and aspirations, after the initial activity of plant science research had moved on. We’re now living in a very different future but looking back at something which is still there. That gap between the idea and the edifice is, for Chris and me, quite a creative place.

Chris: We took the fixtures and fittings out of the buildings and placed them within a gallery context to see how they spoke to people. We trawled through all the rooms at Herne Hill, bringing out both strange laboratory objects and everyday office objects. We arranged them as if they were about to be disposed of in an auction, as a way of looking at the objects objectively.

Image: plant specimens arranged in a re-created teaching laboratory.Specimens from King's Plant Sciences DepartmentEwan: You can capture the essence of a larger place in a small object. We treat objects rather casually sometimes but they’re worthy of scrutiny. You can understand plant sciences through just a single object like a glasshouse or laboratory bench. Taking it out of the building and placing it in a gallery gives the thing its own space and allows it to speak. A laboratory bench holds a whole history, a pedagogy of study, of research, of success, of failure, of accident; it’s all written into the bench. Over time more and more marks are added to it and it’s the bench that becomes the repository of that activity.

Chris: The largest item we brought, and we think it’s unusual because often archives just have paper and photographs, is a whole 10 section greenhouse. It was used to grow plant specimens that were being investigated, but the way a greenhouse functions as a hothouse or place of germination means it’s also a metaphor for education. To give it a certain poignancy we created in it an abandoned office space, with the actual fittings from the abandoned office of Professor James Black, who was the Nobel Prize winning researcher who discovered beta blockers.

Chris: King’s was very positive about the work. This installation was a useful way of having an active dialogue about the history of the College, and a moment to gather people together and think about where memories reside, where we were and where we’re moving on to.

Image: the artists explored the environments and memories of the department's teaching and research through the laboratory benches.Laboratory benches from King's Plant Sciences Department_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Plant Science was exhibited in the Inigo Rooms from May - June as part of the King’s Cultural Institute's on-going series of public events.

Find out more about how the World questions|King's answers campaign is helping the King's Cultural Institute to work with organisations and artists on innovative, engaging and creative projects.

Image: the office of Nobel Prize winner Professor James Black was re-created in part of the glasshouse.Glasshouse from King's Plant Sciences Department

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