Doom and downfall at the Science Gallery

The Science Gallery’s newest exhibition focuses on catastrophe, the apocalypse and how we might avoid it

In Case of Emergency, the newest exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin, explores the collapse of society and the possibility of an apocalypse. The exhibition, which opened on Friday, features survival guides, threats to the planet, prevention methods, and predictions for how we might cope with the end of the world as we know it.

Design plays a large role in the exhibition: the first thing you will see is a grid of clocks all showing times close to midnight. The grid represents the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist’s Doomsday clock with the proximity of the clock-hands to midnight representing the likelihood of global catastrophe. The clock was moved forward to 2 and a half minutes to midnight this year, the closest it has been since 1953.

Opposite the doomsday clocks is the Doomer Bar (doomers are people who prepare for the collapse of civilization), decorated appropriately with tinned food and apocalyptic-themed board games. The bar also features  a bookshelf the Long Now Foundation’s Selection from the Manual for Civilization which are selected books which are valuable in the attempt to rebuild a society in the event of a doomsday scenario: books range from topics such Jungian psychology to engineering to the sci-fi novel Dune.

With ample seating, the Doomer Bar also operates as a waiting area for the Situation Room, an exhibit where 6 visitors enter an enclosure and must vote and solve scientific and ethical issues.

One of the exhibition’s standouts is The New Survivalism Manifesto. This exhibit consists of three different survival kits, each with an accompanying written piece detailing the life and aims of individual protagonists who are preparing for a, who own the kits, with tidbits of backstory.  

While we may associate survival kits with just rations and tools, these kits are more holistic. Jessica Charlesworth, co-founder of Charlesworth and Parsons the designers of the exhibit, told Trinity News the question it asks is “how can a survival kit encapsulate your future hopes and dreams?”

Although each survivalist requires food, shelter and water, self-actualization is the true aim of each protagonist. Charlesworth says this is “ what happens when you’ve met the bottom layer of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid table which presupposes that some needs take precedence over others. 

Charlesworth explains that first protagonist, the Re-wilder, wants to “get to that point where they don’t need a survival kit.” On first impression their kit initially looks like a primitive hunter-gatherer’s; however, on closer inspection vials of  human growth hormone show it to be progressive in some sense. Charlesworth explains: “They train their body they build up their psychological profile for survival and they’re ready for anything.”

The second protagonist, the BioPhotovoltaics Hacktivist, has a survival kit which is inspired by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientist Andreas Mershin’s research on replacing silicon with plant materials in order to produce a solar cell. The written accompaniment has the protagonist declaring “I’ve got enough chemicals here to power a village. And when the grid shuts off I’ve a feeling I’ll be in demand.”Charlesworth noted this protagonist is a type of evangelist who would proliferate the new technology.

The final protagonist in the exhibit is the Object Guardian. Charlesworth describes her aim as to “conserve the history of the objects of the British museum”. The protagonist condenses historical remnants of time before the collapse of society and builds a ball as a “reference tool” which she carries with her in a backpack. She hopes to use the tool to “build her own oral folktale history.”

When asked about the selfless nature of some of the protagonists, Charlesworth notes that with the exception of the Re-wilder survivalist —  who exemplifies the individualism featured in tv shows such as Bear Grylls — they offer hope. “Nobody’s gonna lose empathy, we’re still gonna be humans, we’re just going to be thinking about things differently, depending on who you’re with and not with.”

The exhibition is also peppered with strong imagery, not just dystopian visions of the future, but also portentous images from the present. Images from the ‘Chinese Dust Bowl’ (an area of China undergoing desertification) demonstrate the current environmental harm we are causing the planet. The topic of ominous imagery is explored later on with an exhibit on the The Marker Project, which explores how communication, thousands of years in the future, could work if language dies. Ominous sketches of spikes and imposing structures show how society could deter future inhabitants from danger.

Speaking to Trinity News, Ian Brunswick, head of programming in the Science Gallery explained the significance of the The Marker Project. “Our current warning systems are technical, they’re language based; but this is imagining a future in which case perhaps either culture and language have changed so much they can’t understand us or something has happened so that we’ve forgotten; or potentially a disaster.”

And so the challenge, as Brunswick explains, is to “create a universal symbol of warning which says do not go here there’s something bad here; don’t dig here.”

Brunswick explains that radioactive activity is a special case. “Radioactive waste makes you think on a long term scale that we don’t in any other way. Our species will be very different even if it’s around on that time scale.”

Other exhibits such as the Bush-blaster, a satirical strap-on pollination canon which was designed to mock the reaction of creating technological solutions instead of large-scale fundamental change take a lighter more playful tone. On first impression, the Antibiotic Resistant Quilt, designed by Anna Dumitriu, seems to be similarly playful. However, the cheerfully embroidered quilt has more to it than meets the eye: the quilt contains strains of bacteria which are drug-resistant.

Such exhibits serve to illustrate the point that The Science Gallery have once again created a wonderfully creative, and aesthetically fascinating exhibition. With free admission, there’s no excuse not to pop in between lectures over the next few weeks.

In Case of Emergency runs until February of next year, and will attract environmentalists, problem-solvers, and most of all  — those with a morose fascination with the end of days.