Left: Rosalind Franklin by Elliott & Fry, half-plate film negative, 11 June 1946, NPG x76929 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Right: © Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London.
When I was invited by King’s to curate an exhibition about Rosalind Franklin, I came to the topic with a largely blank slate. Therefore the first phase of the project consisted of a steep and rapid learning curve, reading extensively about her life and work, including two highly regarded biographies, one by her sister Jenifer Glynn, and another by Brenda Maddox. At the same time, I met with King’s College staff, in the Archives department and the Museum of Life Sciences, both of which hold a number of key objects relating to Rosalind Franklin, as well academics in the Department of Physics (the department in which she worked) and the Randall Centre for Cell & Molecular Biophysics (which grew out of the specific unit in which Rosalind held her post). Our conversations provided many insights into her life and work, as well as some strong opinions - which did not always align.
As I reflected on these conversations, as well as on the materials I consulted, it was clear to me that key stories in Rosalind Franklin’s professional life - above all, the period during and shortly after her tenure at King's - as well as her legacy, have led to substantial disagreement and no small amount of controversy. Impassioned voices discuss whether she has been sufficiently credited and celebrated for her contribution to the breakthrough in discovering DNA’s structure, how shoddily she was treated by her (male) colleagues and associates, and the degree to which she should be considered a pioneering female scientist. Navigating these questions was both fascinating and challenging, and the conversations I had - especially with Brian Sutton, whose support and expertise immeasurably enhanced the development of the project - helped me to arrive at my own conclusions. These conclusions then informed my decisions about the exhibition content, texts and labels.
It is important - above all now, at a time when the stories told within heritage, gallery and museum spaces are rightly subjected to ever-wider scrutiny and critique - to highlight that no exhibition, scientific or otherwise, is ever neutral. The narratives and content for this exhibition came together as a result of choices that I have made, formed from my research and in collaboration with advisers amongst King’s staff and academics. My intention with Rosalind Franklin 100: Structures & Symmetries is to bring greater public awareness to the key areas of Franklin’s work, and to reveal how it has contributed to subsequent breakthroughs in the field of genetics. Connecting to the present, the exhibition also reveals how knowledge and techniques yielded by her work are being used by contemporary King’s scientists in their research, on topics ranging from how antibiotics combat bacteria to the function and performance of muscles in the heart.