Meet John O'Shea from Science Gallery London

“Art and science are not in conflict, they are both philosophies and a way of looking carefully at the world,” says John O’Shea, Head of Programming at Science Gallery London, a space where the two disciplines collide.

Opened in September 2018, King’s College London’s free gallery presents three themed seasons every year. These include exhibitions, events, performances, live experiments and open discussions. The aim is to get people engaged in science, be that office workers snatching a half hour lunch break, school children, tourists, or staff from the neighbouring Guy’s hospital.

"Art galleries are designed for reflection. There aren’t similar places that put emerging science in a space for meditation and contemplation," says O’Shea.

The Yorkshireman is just four months into the task of helping Science Gallery London change this. It is not surprising that the role tempted the Fine Art graduate to work outside Northern England for the first time. His career to date is defined by the smashing together of art and the everyday. Previous projects include the creation of a bio-engineered football from living tissue and bringing Tim Peake's spacecraft to the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

This is a theme that recurs as he reluctantly (he would really prefer the artwork to do the talking) poses for a photo next to an exhibit which is part of the gallery’s current HOOKED season. This exhibition and events programme explores what makes humans vulnerable to addiction and examines the underlying factors and routes to recovery. 

The piece in question is Curtain of Broken Dreams (2017) by artist Natasha Caruana.  It is a clever installation that beguiles the viewer with a glittering curtain of golden wedding rings, before revealing they were a pawned and discarded product of divorce.  “The wedding rings are a real thing translated into something else. It shows that nothing is in isolation, that addiction has a real and tangible impact on people’s lives,” says O’Shea.

Each of the gallery’s seasons has a dedicated curator and O’Shea’s job is to facilitate their vision. This involves sourcing exhibits from across different time zones, hosting visiting artists and managing technical challenges such as how to safely install a coffee table made entirely of sugar into the first floor exhibition space.

Currently he is working on Science Gallery London’s next season, SPARE PARTS. This launches in spring and explores how the science of transplantation, regeneration and prosthetics affect our perception of the human body. The programme details are still being finalised, but rather cryptically O’Shea hints it will include ‘non-human creatures’. 

“It will explore wider questions such as where one body ends and another starts. We think of science as a controlled thing, but when it comes to human bodies we don’t have full control,” he says.

Science Gallery London is part of the Global Science Gallery Network, which today has members in six major cities including: Dublin, London, Melbourne, Bengaluru, Venice and Detroit. It is the world’s first university led network dedicated to public engagement with science and art. At its core is the hefty mission of igniting the creative potential of young people globally to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. 

The location of the London node within Boland House, one of the wings of Southwark’s 18th century Guy’s Hospital, reflects its roles as an interface between the City, local businesses, the hospital and King’s College London, explains O’Shea. 

“The neighbourhood changes depending on which way I walk in. There are places where people have lived for decades and those that have just been built. To be opening a gallery in a time of transformation is very exciting.”

His favourite moment to date is attending the Gallery’s first ever ‘Friday Late’ that was designed by the Gallery’s Young Leaders. This is a group of eight 15-25 year olds who live, work and study in the surrounding boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. The group curated an evening of activities including performance and a panel discussion on the ‘who? what? and why?’ of addiction. It was attended by over 600 people.

The gallery is committed to ensuring its visitors benefit from its values of connect, participate and surprise. Of these, O’Shea is particularly passionate about connect.

“One of the challenges of science is that if you’re not an expert you feel you don’t have a right to a view. Our visitors leave empowered to have a discussion on science and art on their own terms,” he says.

Explore the neighbourhood – O’Shea’s guide

Science Gallery Café, Great Maze Pond, London, SE1 9GU

Our ground floor café is run by excellent chef patron Matthew Weston, who has designed breakfast, brunch, and lunch menus around local and seasonal produce. A cup of Monmouth coffee and a view across the newly restored Georgian courtyard is the perfect pairing for scientific contemplation.

Champor Champor, 62 Weston St, London, SE1 3QJ

Great for an evening dinner, this Thai-Malay restaurant is a favourite.  With bold décor, deep colours and lots of tribal masks and Buddha statues, the place has a cosy feel.  It’s also a great location to take visiting artists.

Science Gallery, Great Maze Pond, London, SE1 9GU