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Rosalind Franklin 100 xray HERO4 ;

Telling Rosalind Franklin's story

Curator Ruth Garde discusses her thinking behind the new exhibition she's been working on at King's, which celebrates the life and work of pioneering scientist Rosalind Franklin 100 years after her birth.

Rosalind Franklin 100: Structures & Symmetries is King’s exhibition celebrating the centenary of the birth of Rosalind Franklin, the chemist and x-ray crystallographer whose work at King’s played a pivotal role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. It was due to open to the public in Bush House on the Strand Campus on 22 June 2020, coinciding with Franklin’s birthday on 25 July 2020. Instead, Bush House - like the majority of King’s buildings across all of its five campuses - is closed, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic that still rages across the globe. The exhibition has been postponed and its new opening date is yet to be confirmed.

During this hiatus in the exhibition’s production, while many of us still exist in a COVID-19-induced limbo, I have reflected on the ironic resonance to this collision of events. Part of the story we tell through the exhibition is about Rosalind Franklin’s less widely known pioneering work on solving the structures of viruses. Knowledge of viral structures is the foundation on which scientific understanding of many aspects of viruses rests, including how they infect and replicate within the cell. Such information is central to the development of vaccines. For many of us, normal life will not resume until a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 has been produced and made widely available.

By titling these reflections 'Telling Rosalind Franklin’s story', I am deliberately making a contentious claim: that an exhibition centring on an individual (or, for that matter, focusing on any theme or topic) can ever tell one, all-encompassing narrative. No exhibition can ever claim to tell ‘the’ definitive story of a life; life is messy and disordered, composed of an infinite number of stories. Perspectives on and interpretations of those lives are necessarily diverse and often contradictory. To try to be exhaustive would be foolhardy, and no museum or gallery in the world would have the space for such an exhibition, nor would any visitor wish to attend it! Therefore, the first job of a curator is to try and settle on which story, or stories, they want to explore.


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.

Rosalind Franklin 100 xray thumb

'Laser On' from the photographic series 'Last Glimpse of Photo 51 labs, 2011'. Image courtesy of Christine Donnier-Valentin.

The exhibition not only weaves together the historical and the contemporary, but also includes both scientific artefacts and works of art (including sculptures by artist Shelley James and photographs by Christine Donnier-Valentin) in a way that I hope will produce a lively, dynamic and surprising visitor journey. For the historical content, I have had the great fortune of finding fantastic original objects within King’s own special collections, and of working with the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, who generously agreed to lend original documents including letters and laboratory notebooks belonging to Rosalind Franklin. For the contemporary lens on Franklin’s work, the exhibition will include fascinating scientific imagery from King’s researchers Mark Sanderson and Elisabetta Brunello and - COVID-19 permitting - interviews with a number of King’s young scientists who reflect on how their work is connected to Rosalind Franklin’s.

Rosalind Franklin’s work on DNA - and particularly her iconic Photograph 51, which was so critical to discovering DNA’s structure - is her best-known contribution to science in the wider public consciousness. Through this exhibition, I hope that her work on virus structures (the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and Poliovirus amongst others) will become more widely known. Above all now, living as we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cause of the exhibition’s postponement, the work that Rosalind Franklin achieved to further scientific understanding of how viruses operate could not be more salient.

In this story

Brian  Sutton

Brian Sutton

Emeritus Professor of Molecular Biophysics

Elisabetta Brunello

Elisabetta Brunello

BHF Research Fellow and Lecturer

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