Astronomy in Culture

Big Bang. Credits: Inês Ricardo

Big Bang, short animation. Credits: Inês Ricardo

Many artists, in which I include some of my friends, have an interest in scientific topics, quite often because these raise productive questions to be investigated through creative work. Genetics, artificial intelligence or climate change are examples of themes explored through the arts.

However, although artists may actively read news or in-depth articles about some current scientific topics, it is not among their habits, at least of my friends who are artists, to attend science communication events.

Lumina Festival 2018

The output of IA’s workshop at the Lumina Festival 2018

We need to fully accept that science is culture and make it relevant to other publics. This is important if we want to reach beyond the audiences that already include science events and exhibitions into their free time routine.

The Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA – Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences), in Portugal, where I currently work as science communicator, has been exploring links between astronomy and culture through partnerships with cultural agencies and arts schools.

The aims are to integrate astronomy activities into cultural events and festivals, and to produce freely available communication products using design, multimedia and animation.

We need to fully accept that science is culture and make it relevant to other publics.

I lead, or collaborate, in these partnerships and had the opportunity of summarising this work at the Portuguese Science Communication Congress, SciComPT 2019, on the 30th of May.

Below is a list of some of the projects we are doing at IA, before presenting some lessons learned.

  • Development of a workshop with school students and presenting the result at an open-air public arts festival which received 200 000 people in three days (Lumina Festival 2018)
  • Organising a night sky watching with telescopes in a museum, relating the planets with the Roman Gods (Lisbon Museum of the Roman Theatre)
  • Organising observations with telescopes at a book fair (Lisbon Book Fair, in partnership with Gradiva publisher)
  • Working with design, animation and multimedia art schools offering projects or internships for students to develop communication products conveying concepts in astronomy, including short full dome planetarium shows.

The partnerships with cultural agencies have worked smoothly and have been productive, with each partner recognising the benefits of widening its audience reach, and offering something new in their cultural programme.

I felt, however, that to fully integrate science into cultural events one needs to take the time to risk creatively in new formats. Without dedicated budget and new staff, these projects may look sometimes as patchwork.

Regarding the work with art schools, the most productive format is the internship. Time and dedication to support the students is essential, even if we know that, in the end, some of the results may fall short of our expectations.