York Science & Innovation Grand Tour May - Sept 2012

Sponsored by Aviva

York a blaze of colour

15th September 2011 | by Matt Clark, York Press

York’s streets will be a blaze of artistic colour next year. MATT CLARK meets the man behind the Innovation Grand Tour.

CAST your mind back to 2008 when the city centre resembled an art gallery as York’s Grand Tour showed off 49 reproductions of great works of art on walls, windows – and sometimes rather surprising nooks and crannies.

When it finished, many were sad to see the exhibition go; it was certainly a quirky addition to York’s wealth of attractions. But there’s good news, it’s coming back.

York Science and Innovation Grand Tour 2012 will run for three months beginning in May, only this time the art on display will focus on the city’s contribution to science and innovation.

You’d be hard pushed to recognise some of the images, though. Many will resemble the work of abstract artists, and the man behind it, Professor Tony Robards, believes that is the whole point.

“The Grand Tour of 2008 was super, but while the old masters were great they left you wondering: what next? The Grand Tour 2012 will answer the what next question and I think it will be unique. It has a definite wow factor and is designed to promote York unashamedly to local, regional, national and international audiences.”

Prof Robards says the images will have to look stunning and be about York. Dazzling and eye-catching would also describe the first piece he shows me.

Pretty Molecular Model is described as a three-dimensional structure of a viral portal protein which helps scientists understand “how DNA is translocated during viral particle assembly”.

Which is as fascinating as it is intimidating. We are not used to high-brow science any more and on TV it has too often become a “will they, won’t they?” exercise in unnecessary suspense.

It’s as if we have lost the ability to understand the likes of Raymond Baxter, who went into all those baffling details on Tomorrows World.

But while Prof Robards may be a scientist, he is also a renaissance man who embraces art alongside science, often preferring to make no distinction. And he’s on a mission to use art to conquer our fear of technology.

“York is a leading international centre for science and innovation and having amazing images will lure you towards the stories we have rather than leaving you to find out yourself.

“For example, the people of York and North Yorkshire have made huge contributions to everything from astronomy and the science of flight to geology and, more recently, biology and information technology.”

And Prof Robards’s picture descriptions are down to earth; something that will prove vital if the exhibition is to succeed. He doesn’t bother too much about technical words if they get in the way.

Take the photo he calls the Little Squiggly Wriggly Things Picture, which is a bit less intimidating than its true description of “mammalian sperm showing mitochondria in the mid piece”.

Lest there be accusations of dumbing down complex ideas, Prof Robards is aware of the need to cater for all levels of knowledge, so each picture will have what is known as a QR code; a cube, which acts like a barcode for mobile devices. Visitors with smart phones will be able to scan the code and find out what the illustration is about. Some of the scientific concepts may be challenging, but we will be able to choose the level of detail.

“Like on a website you will be asked which page you want to go to, but we must make this intelligible to the man and woman in the street, it can’t just be for boffins.”

There will be easier concepts to understand; a photo of a Eurofighter has been short-listed because the computer software was designed and verified at the University of York.

Who knew that?

“That is exactly the point of the Grand Tour. Science can be a bit scary but this is about winning hearts and minds and when you get to the well I never knew that stage, you think what does it mean for me. Well careers for your children for a start.”

At the moment, the project is in its infancy and Prof Robards says the first priority is to attract sponsors, whose logos will appear when the information is displayed on a smartphone.

He hopes to raise £150,000 in sponsorship, including funds from the Government’s Technology Strategy Board.

The second job is to source the images and a competition will also be held to attract pictures from York photographers.

“We want to let people understand what science and technology based industries are providing for them here in York. And make them feel proud about that because they should be.

“Equally, we want to show outsiders that York isn’t just a nice place to visit, we’re really business-orientated and doing well in the downturn because we have a well-differentiated business community.” The York Science & Innovation Grand Tour is a partnership between City of York Council, York Museums Trust, Visit York, the University of York, York St John University and Science City York. Prof Robards says he hopes to use the same locations as last time, but with more use of the city walls. He’s aiming at 80 images and says he wouldn’t be disappointed if he got 100.

And for him, an important element will be coherent tours for people of all ages and from all walks of life, including primary schools, that have messages they can understand and enjoy.

“We have an optimism in the knowledge-based, knowledge-led community and this exhibition will be a celebration of that. We’ve started something unique and we don’t know all the answers, but we’ll have a lot of fun finding them out.

“There are no rules; we can go our own way.”

• There are many ways to be involved with York Science and Innovation Grand Tour 2012. If you would like to be part of it, send an expression of interest outlining the type and number of images desired to York Science and Innovation Grand Tour, Innovation Centre, York Science Park University of York YO10 5DG or awr1@york.ac.uk

You can also keep an eye on how things are progressing at yorkgrandtour.co.uk

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