Future Thinking

What would happen if…

… we had breathalyzer cars?

… all meat was grown in labs?

… teachers were replaced by robots?

Artist David Lisser explored these questions and their spiralling consequences with a number of young co-researchers during a series of workshops that culminated the ‘Future Thinking’ project.

The workshops were developed as the core part of a project which saw the artist meet and interact with a number of researchers from areas across the University, including experts in agriculture, paleoarchaeology, international development, soil science, and meteorology. He also visited the Suttons Seeds collection, part of the University’s special collections 

Meeting with staff from Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Following these meetings and conversations, David created a host of rubber pollen molecule models which became the central part of a new ‘museum of future artefacts’.

David ran five workshops over two weeks, with different school groups attending each workshop. The school groups came from schools around Berkshire, and were all schools with which the Outreach team have or are developing relationships with for a variety of different interactions with the University.

Workshops were held at the Museum of Rural Life, where the students first got to handle some rather unfamiliar objects from the MERL collection, working out what sort of clues to look for in order to determine their purpose and possible history. Pollen also acts as a sort of artefact holding clues to the history of the earth: virtually indestructible, fossilised pollen molecules can tell us a lot about the probable flora and climate of different parts of the world many millions of years ago.

To start thinking about what artefacts could tell us in future decades, students were introduced to Future Wheels, and generated intensive discussions about the possible consequences of some likely (and more imaginative) future scenarios which were suggested by different researchers from across the University. Based on the worlds they imagined through the Future Wheels, students then created small-scale models of artefacts that might be found from these future worlds, and these were then encased by the rubber pollen capsules to be added to a growing installation in the MERL’s community case.

68 students in total attended the workshops, including students from Addington SEN school. All students engaged brilliantly with the concepts and the creating of models; we were bowled over especially by the level of imagination and creativity applied to the Future Wheels tasks. It seems as if the students had an enjoyable time – 85% fed back that they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I enjoyed the day’.

The installation of pollen molecules is available to view in the Community Case at MERL until October 2019.

The project was made possible with a grant from the Access Fund and was co-delivered by Impact Development Manager Katie Cooper, Arts Development Officer Miranda Laurence and Outreach and Access Officer Freya Varden.



Hybrid Practices @ Urban Room

Hybrid Practices @Urban Room

Friday 7th June, University of Reading, London Road Campus

Exploring space through hybrid practices of movement, design and theory

Please join us for a series of dialogues exploring notions of collaboration and exchange in action. We ask: What do ‘hybrid practices’ mean to you? How can we think in different ways?

12–2pm Dialogue I: Movement-Lab

What is the relationship between choreographic movement and architectural design? What if we designed a building on the basis of a dance score? How do you experience space around you on a daily basis? Led by choreographer Adesola Akinleye and movement director Struan Leslie, this interactive workshop will invite us to use movement and choreography to explore our relationship with spatial architectures in action.

2:30–4:30pm Dialogue II: Inter-disciplinary Lab

What happens when we use different practices to explore one set of questions? How can we change habits of interacting and of thinking? Thinking through practices of movement, design and theory we will consider different and interlocking approaches to the spaces around us and how we inhabit them. A hands-on dialogue with conversations from guest speakers.

5–6pm Dialogue III: An Auto-biography

Following three weeks of artist micro-residencies, this session looks back at the life of the Urban Room, with presentations and provocations from participating artists. We ask: what did the space propose? What invitations did it make? How did people respond to and interact with the space? How did spatiality and temporality impact on experience and event?

Followed by drinks reception to celebrate the Urban Room programme.


Participants are welcome to attend the full day or individual sessions.

REGISTER: Please email Miranda Laurence on m.c.laurence@reading.ac.uk to register your place on any or all of the sessions.

Hybrid Practices@Urban Room is co-organised by Dr. Carolina Vasilikou (School of Architecture), Dr. Anna Kontopoulou (School of Art) and Miranda Laurence (Arts Strategy, University of Reading).

‘Future Thinking’ project: Call-out for Artist or Creative Designer

We are seeking to engage a freelance artist or creative designer to develop existing or new artwork which engages with one or more of the themes of Biodiversity, Urban Environment, or Climate Resilience.

The artist will develop interactive, multi-sensory work and will design and deliver five interdisciplinary ‘Challenge Days’ centred on the artwork for pupils aged 11-16, and SEN students. These will be delivered at the Museum of English Rural life between 17-30 June.

The artist will be invited to collaborate with selected researchers from the University of Reading, primarily working across discipline areas related to our Environment theme.

This project is co-delivered by the Arts Development Officer, and the Impact Officer (lead for the Environment theme), with support from the Student Recruitment and Outreach Office, and from MERL. Support from all these areas will be available to the artist throughout the project.

Deadline for applications is 9am on Monday 25 February. Please download the brief  for full information! Future Thinking Artist Brief – University of Reading

The project has been made possible through funding committed via the University of Reading’s Access and Participation Plan.

On the Fabric of the Human Body: Creative Action Lab with Centre for Health Humanities


It’s strangely mesmerising, cutting and sticking. Particularly the cutting out part. You find yourself drawn into the smallest focus of outline on the paper that you’re cutting, on the way the blades of your scissors can turn into sharp corners. It also induces a cramp in my hand. As I rest and shake it out, I consider how long it’s been since someone has sat me down in front of glue, paper, paint, scissors and drawings and told me to make a collage.


The attentiveness of focus is a common thread that has linked the activities during the two-day workshop that I am running in collaboration with Andrew Mangham, co-director of the Centre for Health Humanities here at the University of Reading. We chose two beautiful early modern anatomical textbooks from the Cole Collection as our centre piece – Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, of 1543, and Govert Bidloo’s Anatomia Humani Corporis, from 1685. These books sit weightily on a central table in the middle of the room, showing off their extraordinarily detailed drawings of semi-dissected human bodies.

Kelley Swain, Fiona Millward and Eleanor Crook inspect the Bidloo text with archivist Fiona Melhuish

We constructed this workshop to invite people to apply their focus to these texts in unusual ways. Our core participants are five artists working in different art forms: Eleanor Crook, a sculptor and anatomical artist; Fiona Millward, choreographer and Rolfer, Kelley Swain, a writer specialising in medical humanities; Simon Hall, artist and doctor (and dentist), and Agi Haines, a designer and artist. Each of these artists was invited to lead an activity in response to the anatomical textbooks, inviting us in from different perspectives, different ways of knowing, seeing, hearing, moving and touching.


The collage session is Eleanor’s, the final one of the two days, and there is a satisfying sense of glee as we get to work on photocopies of some of the more gruesome engravings of dead people that were taken from both books. As my focus centres on the intricate details of these artworks, I notice a completely different appreciation for the work than I’d had in previous sessions, whether that was moving my own body and responding to the pictures of the human body’s muscles, spine and organs; or listening to myself and others reading aloud poems that make our tongues writhe around unfamiliar words and startlingly emotive images. Simon previously led a session in which we were invited to play with lumps of modelling wax while he read passages from a memoir about the experience of blindness. Many people closed their eyes and let the sense of touch guide them.


During the two days, we welcomed different academics and staff members into the room to join us in discovering these different perspectives on our collection items. We banished the Powerpoint presentation in favour of occupying the room in different ways, talking in small clusters, sitting on the floor, clearing the tables away to move around. We gave time for conversations to meander, and sometimes tail off; for anecdotes to be shared and offside connections to be made. Themes emerged around (multi-)sensory perception; medical narratives; truth, fakery and authority of knowledge; the dark delight of the macabre, and much more.


Writer Kelley Swain fed back that ‘This multi-media, multi-genre, and multi-sensory conversation, over two days, allowed me to think about the Vesalius and Bidloo, and their relationships with contemporary Medical Humanities ideas, with much more depth and nuance than I might otherwise have had through a straightforward lecture on the texts.’

Professor Andrew Mangham, co-director of the Centre for Health Humanities, wrote that the workshop ‘encouraged us to develop new and innovative approaches to health research. It is rare for a research event to have such an innovative, multi-sensory approach to its topic.’

The workshop was a pilot ‘Creative Action Lab’, supported by the Heritage and Creativity Institute for Collections, and so we were keen to experiment with a new method of sharing ideas across disciplines. As a Health Humanities event we welcomed colleagues from English, History, Pharmacy, UMASCS (Special Collections), Art, Typography, Psychology. Those who attended welcomed the slowness of this type of discovery, allowing for questions to be asked, contrary to the often more outcomes-focused pacing of such events.


PhD student Amie Bolissian McRae said: ‘One of the extremely valuable outcomes from the workshop’s format was that every person attending had an entirely unique experience and journey through the art and source materials. This meant that, when bringing all our thoughts and perceptions together at the end, there was a wealth of related innovative ideas which drew from the knowledge, experience, and research interests of each attendee.’ This was reflected in artist Agi Haines’ experience: ‘Dipping in and out of people’s practices and then reflecting on them to find shared topics and concerns was a really fruitful format. It seemed to shift the lens away from habitual ‘home’ disciplinary ways of working.’

We are now exploring continuations of this approach and some emerging themes. We are thinking of pairing artists with academics in different disciplines to follow up ideas about the relationship between doing (or making) and thinking, taking inspiration from the great early anatomists, and illustrators of anatomy, who paid such close attention to detail in their pursuit of new knowledge to help cure disease.

Artistic Practice, Health Humanities and Collections Workshop

Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica

It’s quite difficult to describe the frisson that went around the room as everyone realised that in front of them, to look at and indeed touch, were original copies of some of the most famous books in medical history.


Full of painstaking engravings illustrating the very minute details of the human body in all its layerings, the copies of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica and Bidloo’s Anatomia Hvmani Corporis provided a huge source of fascination for the artists and scholars gathered for an afternoon’s workshop, jointly organised by the Health Humanities Research Network, and the Arts Development Officer as part of the University’s arts strategy activity.


We invited four artists from different disciplines, with an interest in medical humanities, to join the director of the Health Humanities Centre Andrew Mangham, University Art Collections Curator Naomi Lebens, Research Officer: Cole Collection Verity Burke, and Arts Development Officer Miranda Laurence. The artists were Simon Hall, doctor, visual artist and dental trainee whose work explores art and medicine collaboration; Fiona Millward, a dancer, teacher and choreographer and Rolfing practitioner; Kelley Swain, a writer of science poetry and literature reviews, and teacher of medical humanities; and Eleanor Crook, a sculptor with a special interest in mortality, anatomy and pathology who exhibits internationally in fine art and medical and science museum contexts.

Image from Govert Bidloo – engravings by Gerard de Lairesse

Naomi Lebens and Verity Burke began the session by introducing us to chosen items from the University Art and the Cole collection, respectively; the theme of ‘movement and stillness’ underpinned their choices. Our discussion ranged from the different visual and haptic interactions experienced when dissecting preserved body parts as opposed to conducting an operation on a live person; to how the illustrations of dissected bodies in the two anatomical text books varied from classical to grotesque, and what effect that had on the viewer; to how sketches of performing dancers related to a drawing of a woman on her death bed, and a woman mid- conversation.


These eclectic conversations led us to an exploration of how each of us might unlock an unfamiliar object – whether that might be a work of art, a book, or anything else – from our different discipline perspective. Eleanor wrote: “these responses ranged from it being a kind of physical empathy, to it being a teasing out of stories, to it being a relationship to the hand and the haptic, to it being , in my case, a kind of séance.”


The different disciplines in which everyone worked might have given each person a different starting point, but as conversation flowed, the approaches described by one person drew sparks of responding imagination from another. For Fiona it was illuminating “to recognise the mutuality within our approaches of opening oneself up to the making process, but also the diversity bred of our different forms and so how the steps beyond that spiral out into different directions.”


We are hoping to be able to follow up this stimulating workshop with more opportunities for scholars and artists to exchange knowledge and processes, and indeed be collective in their un-knowing curiosity. As Kelley said, “it was a rare treat to be invited to get together to think about a collection, with artists and academics, all of whom have related points of interest.”


We feel that this is a delicious opportunity to approach the University’s amazing collections in a new and unchartered way. Naomi speaks for us all in saying that the workshop gave her “renewed belief in the power of collections as a tool for opening up dialogues between academics and creative practitioners on an equal footing; helping them to understand one another’s processes and, in turn, to incorporate new ideas and ways of thinking into their work. Fostering true interdisciplinarity.”