What if you were asked to save the world?

Tina Eyre outside the history of science museum

What if You Were Asked to Save the World? is an exhibition title which does not pull any punches. How did you come up with the idea? 

It all started back in autumn 2021 when I joined the Collecting COVID project – a joint venture between the History of Science Museum and the Bodleian Libraries to collect objects and stories about the extraordinary responses from across Oxford University to the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I was struck early on by the huge pressure on Oxford’s vaccine scientists, not just within their teams but as individuals. We often heard on the news about the teams of scientists working on the vaccine, but some of the stories we collected involved one person, or a very small group, working on a key stage in the vaccine development when the whole process hinged on them.  

It is no exaggeration to say that at times, the whole world was watching, waiting for news of their success, and they felt the weight of that on their shoulders.  

And it is not as if they could go home and forget about it at the end of the day. Leaving the laboratory after 12+ hour days meant walking into a different set of lockdown challenges: home schooling, face coverings and restrictions on seeing their friends and families.  

The pressure on each and every one of them was unrelenting. 

So it is fascinating to hear how they were sustained by a strong sense of camaraderie in the workplace — and by a truly fascinating range of hobbies they used to relax. Everything from knitting and baking to nurturing a growing ball of discarded labels, even eating the virus (in the form of cookies!). 

We have shared some of their stories in this exhibition, along with the technical and personal objects they donated. 

We saw scientists thrust into the media spotlight during the pandemic — many of them for the first time. What impact did that have? 

At the time, it was reassuring for the public as consumers of news. We came to rely on those calm, rational voices giving us the facts. 

For Oxford’s vaccine scientists, though, working in the spotlight of public scrutiny was a double-edged sword.  

On the one hand, it could feel like a distraction when their instinct was to focus all their energies on the vaccine. On the other, sharing their expertise in the media played a vital role in raising the profile of scientists and the work they do. 

It struck me how surprised they often were by the recognition they personally received. 

As Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert put it, in their view ‘Science is the hero’.

The exhibition shares a fascinating range of stories from a diverse group of scientists, many of them women. 

Indeed. Although about half of us are women, so I suppose it should not be a surprise! 

In 2021 Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, Said Professor of Vaccinology, was one of six women in STEM named a ‘Barbie Role Model’ — you can see the one-of-a-kind doll she received in the exhibition.  

It is said you have to ‘See it to be it’ and Professor Gilbert hopes the doll will encourage children to be interested in science and imagine their future careers in the sector: 

‘I am passionate about inspiring the next generation of girls into STEM careers and hope that children who see my Barbie will realise how vital careers in science are to help the world around us. 

I’m not a woman scientist, I’m a scientist and more than half my colleagues are women and we do the job.’  

We imagine curators work with beautiful objects in dusty archives, but you have been collecting living history. Has that changed how you go about growing the COVID collection? 

First of all, I think my colleagues at the History of Science Museum and the Bodleian Libraries will want me to reassure the University that we keep our archives in pristine condition! 

It certainly is true, though, that what we call contemporary collecting is very different from traditional curatorial work — and it has, until recently, been pretty low on the priority list for museums.  

When we are collecting, say, an antique telescope, we rely on documents and archives to find out who made and used it. 

For the Collecting COVID project, we are finding objects and stories by speaking directly with first-hand witnesses. That means talking face-to-face with the scientist who designed the vaccine or developed the ventilator. 

We also need to reflect the whole range of voices and opinions about the pandemic, which includes dissenting voices and those who felt helpless on the sidelines. We will be sharing more of those stories as the exhibition evolves during 2023.  

For anyone who wants to explore this thought-provoking topic further, I wrote a blog post earlier this year called ‘The Ethics of Contemporary Collecting: Balancing the Many Voices of the Pandemic'. 

Talking of the exhibition expanding, I heard that a ‘Virus Piano’ is coming in October. How does that work? 

After months of living with restrictions because of COVID-19 virus variants, VIANO will give us the power to make the virus dance to our tune! 

Made possible by a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fund, VIANO is the brainchild of scientists and designers from Goldsmiths University of London, Digital Creativity Labs and the University of York Mathematical and Computational Virology Group. 

Sometimes when a virus makes copies of itself, that replication process doesn’t go smoothly and that is how variants occur. 

With VIANO, you get to be the virus replicator, playing the four letters of the spike protein nucleotides on a keyboard. If you play a ‘bad’ note, the mutation appears as a red addition to the protein you are building.  

But not all changes are bad. Just as in nature, the virus you build might be the one evolution selects, and your ‘mistake’ means you have created a new strain.  

All of us in the Museum team are looking forward to having a play when it arrives — just to check everything is in working order before we open it to visitors, of course!

What If You Were Asked to Save the World? is free to enter, no booking needed, at the History of Science Museum in Broad Street from Tuesday 4 October 2022.