RUTHERFORD’S GARDEN in conjunction with ArtCop21



01 MAY – 31 DEC 2015, ALL DAY


If Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937) was alive today, would he have a garden? With compassion and a sense of responsibility would he reflect on the huge implications and bitter-sweet legacy of his ‘splitting the atom’ discovery?

Rutherford’s Garden is a University of Manchester Arts and Sciences Collaborations Commission.

Would he try to find solutions to radioactive contamination through the agency of plants? If so, what might Rutherford grow in his garden?

Throughout summer and autumn of 2015, artist/curator James Brady has been creating a model ‘remediation’ garden outside The Manchester Museum, in collaboration with plant scientists at the Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester.

In 1917, during a series of pioneering experiments, Ernest Rutherford split the atom in the building next to The Manchester Museum. His scientific discovery was iconic – enabling us to observe and understand the fundamental building-blocks of physical matter. Rutherford’s work changed our world forever, leading the way for the field of nuclear (atomic) science. Now, almost 100 years later, we have the incredible technological ability to generate power from radioactive mineral resources (such as uranium) and make weapons to defend our countries, but… we might ask, at what cost?

Rutherford’s Garden is an on-going creative project – a shared journey – which does not claim to be Art or Science necessarily. Instead, its playful dynamic is somewhere in between. It is an ongoing process which in its method, involves research in historic archives (i.e. The Manchester Museum’s herbarium collection), revealing stories through conversations with people (i.e. with scientists and activists), and experimental collaborations with plants and fungi, among other activities.

Broadly, this project aims to explore the cycles of energy transition, from the negative environmental effects of our industrial activities (extracting the Earth’s natural raw matter), to the restorative, self-sustaining beauty of the Earth’s natural processes.

A selection of plants (flowers, vegetables and wild grasses) and fungi (oyster mushrooms) will gradually grow, in the small model garden. These are plants and fungi which are known to have the natural ability to: 1) survive and live in contaminated soils and water, or 2) are able to absorb toxic chemicals out of soil and water – effectively containing it, cleaning, or ‘remediating’ it. This biological process is known as Phytoremediation (with plants) and Mycoremediation (with fungi) – a new, emerging science which is being practiced at the University of Manchester.

The model garden aims to put this cutting-edge bioremediation research into the public realm, so that you can be fascinated and inspired by it, as we are. The plants and fungi which grow in Rutherford’s Garden should be familiar to us all – we might encounter them in our gardens at home, in the street, in the fields through which we stroll, and even on our dinner plate. The flowering plants in particular make an important contribution to habitat for pollinating insects, such as bees, butterflies and moths. In fact, we hope the Museum’s bee colony will benefit from them.

Every day, all over the world, chemicals are released into ecosystems. This is due to pollution from human industrial activities, such as: mass manufacturing, mining for minerals and coal, deep sea drilling for oil and gas, the explosion of biological and nuclear weapons, and nuclear power stations. Often this pollution is called ‘waste’. However, we must remember that in Nature there is no such thing as ‘waste’. Everything is connected in a perpetual cycle and all our actions have long lasting effects. Whatever is released or discarded goes back in to our environments – back into the water, air, and earth.

Climate Change is just one of many inevitable consequences of our human activity and exploitation of Earth’s matter (or, commonly referred to as ‘natural resources’). In context, this project asks the question: How can plants and fungi help to repair and restore our damaged environments? And what wisdom can we learn from these complex, living organisms which might enable humanity live more in harmony with the planet?

With thanks to:
The Manchester Museum
Office of Social Responsibility, University of Manchester
Department of Plant Sciences, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester

 (press release THE MANCHESTER MUSEUM)