UK's first graphene exhibition opens in Manchester

A new exhibition telling the story of graphene, an extraordinary substance discovered at the University of Manchester in 2004, has opened at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry (MSI).

Feature by News Team | 22 Jul 2016

Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond is the UK’s first major exhibition on graphene, and forms part of a city-wide programme celebrating Manchester’s place as European City of Science 2016.

The so-called 'wonder material' of the title, graphene really is quite nifty. Isolated by scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester in 2004 using, remarkably, Scotch tape, this one-atom layer of carbon has some incredible properties. It is about 100 times stronger than the strongest steel, conducts heat and electricity, is invisible to the naked eye and is the world's first 2D material. Scientists reckon it has the possibility to change the world, from energy and electronics to healthcare and mobile phones.

Combining science and art, Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond tells the story of this amazing substance through objects, photographs, music, films and newly commissioned artworks that illuminate the people and places involved in the history of graphene – revealing its past, present and imagined future.

A Manchester story

"It's very much a Manchester story at the same time as being a global story," says MSI's director, Sally MacDonald, at today's exhibition launch. "It features the story of how a group of international researchers at the University of Manchester isolated a new material that has the potential to revolutionise almost every product that we’re familiar with in the coming years."

Graphene is not an obvious subject for an exhibition, however. This is a material that's an atom thick, invisible to the naked eye. "We had to make the two-dimensional three-dimensional, which is a real challenge," admits MacDonald. 

Luckily for curators Danielle Olsen and Sarah Baines, this ephemeral, practically invisible material is endlessly fascinating. "Most people don’t know what graphene is, but once you do, it’s kind of a sci-fi type material," Olsen says. "It does all these amazing things, and yet you can’t touch it, you can’t hold it."

Olsen's other tactic for engaging audiences has been to humanise the material. "We’ve tried to bring in the human stories as much as possible, to capture some of that curiosity and ingenuity and innovation that goes into working with the material," she explains.

How the exhibition works

The first part of the exhibition brings graphene to life, with atomic models helping us to understand the material at nanoscale. The idea is that, once people have a bit of an understanding what graphene is, they can then play an active part in the second section of the exhibition, which encourages people to imagine what the future of graphene might be.

To help inspire audiences, Olsen approached people who've already demonstrated a brilliant imagination to come in and work with the material.

"We invited Lemn Sissay to get involved, for example. He's written a poem inspiring people to dream and think about how we might use this stuff, for good and bad."

Olsen also points to the bracing, super-widescreen video installation Everything and Nothing from art/science collective Random International (famous for their 'Rain Room' at the Barbican), which simply shows a steamroller trundling toward the screen crushing everything in its path. "They've done a really good job of capturing the idea of graphene through that steamroller metaphor – it’s paving the way for a completely new future, but we have no idea where it’s taking us. It gives this invisible, untouchable thing a very physical dimension.

"Music, in terms of emotions and feelings, was also very important," Olsen adds. "Sara Lowes, the composer in residence at the [National] Graphene Institute, has written a beautiful piece called Graphene Suite inspired by the history of the material."

The hope is that these works of art will inspire people attending design/tech company Bare Conductive's interactive exhibit, which invites audiences to get creative and imagine remarkable graphene products of the future – think clothing with built-in computer power, or electricity-generating windows.

As well as imagining the future of graphene, audiences can also see how it is being used today, with new documentary photography by PANOS showcasing how the material is currently being utilised around the world, from Abu Dhabi to Sri Lanka.

What to see at Wonder Materials

Among the array of historical objects on display, Manchester audiences will find a graphite-coated Elizabethan cannonball and Rutherford’s atomic models. There's also the actual sticky-tape dispenser that began the whole graphene story by helping Geim and Novoselov isolate the material – a technique that saw them win the Nobel Prize for Physics 2010.

Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond will be accompanied by a year-round programme of hands-on science events, evening science socials, 'in conversation'-style events and creative workshops for adults, families and schools.

The first of these events is Science in the City Late (27 Jul). On the night, composer Anna Meredith will premiere a new work inspired by graphene and the Wonder Materials exhibition, created in collaboration with a group of female musicians and multi-disciplinary artists during Meredith’s recent four-day residency at MSI.

While visitors will have fun exploring the past, present and future of graphene, one person attending today's launch seems less than enthusiastic: Andre Geim, who along with Konstantin Novoselov made the Wonder Materials exhibition possible. The Soviet-born, Dutch-British scientist is clearly ready to move on. "Graphene, for me, is a little bit like your ex," he says, wryly. "You try to forget, but everybody keeps coming around and saying, ‘Oh, you know she’s so good.’" 

Geim is looking towards the future; Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond invites you to do the same.

Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond opens Saturday 23 July at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. Open until 25 June 2017