A Canadian art exhibit takes a different look at the ongoing debate surrounding human stem cell research
By Jef Akst | January 20, 2011
These days, talk of stem cells and the thorny ethical issues that come with studying them or using them as disease treatments pervades the classroom, the research lab, the courtroom, and certainly the media. And now stem cells have made their way into yet another venue -- the art museum.
Perceptions of Promise exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary Image: Photo by Owen Melenka
"Stem cells is just a phenomenally controversial area of science," says linkurl:Timothy Caulfield,;http://www.law.ualberta.ca/centres/hli/about/people/staff/Caulfield a bioethicist at the Health Law Institute of the University of Alberta and one of the creators of linkurl:Perceptions of Promise,;http://www.perceptionsofpromise.com/ a stem cell-themed exhibit showing now at the linkurl:Glenbow Museum;http://www.glenbow.org/exhibitions/ in Calgary. "So we thought it was a perfect opportunity to explore the role of art as a way of commenting on the science and issues around it."
Over the last couple of years, Caulfield has worked with linkurl:his brother Sean,;http://www.seancaulfield.ca/ a professor of art design also at the University of Alberta, to brainstorm ways to combine their interests in art, science, and society. The brothers' first brainchild, a 2009 art show in Alberta called linkurl:Imagining Science,;http://www.seancaulfield.ca/index.php/journal/804-imagining-science-an-artistic-exploration-of-science-society-and-social-change explored legal and ethical issues surrounding biotechnological advances, such as cloning and genetic testing.
While they were happy with the exhibition's success, they felt there were plenty more issues left to cover. "Many of the people involved thought this conversation isn't over," Sean says. "It's kind of just beginning." So they decided to do it again, this time focusing on the contentious issues surrounding stem cell research.
Following the tradition of their first exhibition, they organized a workshop that brought together scientists, social commentators, and artists to present their work and represent diverse perspectives on stem cell research. In addition to the discussions that took place that day, the meeting spawned many long-term collaborations between the artists and scientists that resulted in the artwork that makes up Perceptions of Promise.
"I've been blown away," Timothy says. "I think there's been a lot more in depth conversation and ongoing collaboration" than the first exhibit engendered.
Developmental and stem cell biologist linkurl:Peter Rugg-Gunn;http://www.sickkids.ca/research/rossant/contact/Peter.asp of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, for example, worked closely with artist linkurl:Marilène Oliver,;http://www.marileneoliver.com/ who transforms medical images, such as MRI and CT scans, into works of art. Intrigued by Rugg-Gunn's description of the confocal microscopy techniques used to look at early embryos, she approached him after his presentation during the initial workshop. He showed her the images he had of mouse embryos and eventually helped her track down similar images of early human embryos generated by a group in the UK, from which Oliver generated her sculptures for the show.
"I don't think many people know what an early human embryo looks like," Rugg-Gunn says, before the limbs start to form and the embryo begins to resemble the general shape of a baby. "To me, it's an important message to get across about where stem cells come from."
linkurl:Paul Cassar,;http://www.ualberta.ca/%7Esserrano/perceptions/participants.html#top a doctoral student at the University of Toronto who works with mouse embryonic stem cells, took an even more hands-on approach to his collaboration with artist linkurl:Daniela Schlüter;http://www.ualberta.ca/%7Esserrano/perceptions/participants.html#dschluter -- he actually drew some scientific schematics from which Schlüter created her mixed media drawings.
"By no means am I a good drawer," Cassar says. "Even my sketches could have been done better by a three year old," he jokes. But when Schlüter overlaid her own drawings, she was able to "create this story to contrast some of these tensions [of] where we are now with this stem cell debate," he says. "I think is a really neat example of how science can be inspiring to other creative minds."
In addition to the art exhibit, the Caulfield brothers are also recruiting scientists to collaborate on a book with chapters on the issues raised throughout the exhibition's development. "I jumped at the chance at being able to write this chapter," says Rugg-Gunn. "I think being able to communicate the excitement and fascination for me to the general public about working with stem cells is important."
"I think that [the exhibit] is going to reach out to communities and disciplines that we as scientists would probably not be able to reach even if we attempted to do our own types of outreach," Cassar says. "I think in that way it's really going to broaden the exposure and the visibility of the field."
Perceptions of Promise was funded in part by the Canadian Stem Cell Network. It will show at the Glenbow Museum until March 20, 2011. The Caulfields are also in discussions with other potential host venues for the exhibit, but no firm plans have been made. **__Related stories:__***linkurl:Totipotent art;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57572/ [23rd July 2010]*linkurl:Catastrophic art;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57339/ [16th April 2010]*linkurl:Science has designs on art;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/54622/ [2nd May 2008]
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"I don't think many people know what an early human embryo looks like," Rugg-Gunn says, before the limbs start to form and the embryo begins to resemble the general shape of a baby. "To me, it's an important message to get across about where stem cells come from."\n\nDoes it mean that we are entitled to destroy it because this early embryo does not resemble the general shape of a baby?