Friday 18 September 2009

A Cambridge Contribution on Microscopes, Explorers, Medical Pioneers and Inventors on the Fourth Plinth

The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was unoccupied since its completion in 1841, when money for a planned equestrian statue failed to materialise - until the Mayor of London and various arts groups initiated a series of exhibitions upon it. One & Other is the current event, assisted by Sky Arts, a brainchild of Anthony Gormley, of "Angel of the North" fame. See him talk about his vision here

Antony Gormley on the Fourth Plinth from One & Other on Vimeo.

For 100 days since the middle of July, members of the public have been occupying the plinth for 1 hour each, 24h a day, come rain or shine. They are chosen by a draw from those who had applied to be part of the project. What you do on the plinth is entirely up to you, as long as it is legal. The project will provide not just a piece of art but also a social record of our society in 2009.

With around 30000 applying for 2400 places, I thought it was worth joining. The August and September draws came and I was unsuccessful. Resigned, I was therefore surprised to have a call a couple of hours after the September draw results asking
"We have a slot free on the Plinth. It's at 2am on 16th Sept are you interested?"
"YES!!!" was my resounding exhilarated reply!

I set off at nine pm to catch the train to London, where a narrow band of rain had been inundating the Plinth with nearly an inch of rain over the past hours. I arrived at Trafalgar Square with rain still bucketing down at 11pm. Fortunately, there was a warm welcome and a cup of tea in the temporary two storey One&Other building on the square from which the event was run, within sight of the Plinth.

There was a camaraderie in that cabin amongst the Plinthers who had just completed, and those who were to go up in the next couple of hours. Stories and experiences, ambitions and fears, Distances travelled and places to go all discussed. Plinthers would go out to view the current incumbents and lend support in a constant ebb and flow. There was tight security, but very sensitively handled. Safety was paramount too. We were all also interviewed and photographed individually as part of research by the Wellcome Trust as well as to provide material for the forthcoming record as a book of the event.

I was extremely lucky! The rain stopped just before I got onto the cherry picker, Stuart of security walking ahead of us as we slowly drove to the plinth, only missing the red flag that men walking in front of early automobiles used to have. I turned to One & Other Jamy who was escorting me and found out that his hobby was Birding with a pleasure at having recorded some Ospreys earlier this year. The Cherry picker rose well above the plinth and then delicately lowered to the edge of the plinth where Mike from Wales had been dancing for the full hour, ready to come off on a physical and emotional high.

And then I was alone on the 1.5m x 4m plinth, 8m above the ground with spotlights and cameras trained on me and a group of friendly hecklers below. (Video of event with times of highlights in text below video available here).

The main thread of my stay was people's hobbies, demonstrated by mine, microscopy. The link to the plinth was the Victorian connection to the birth of amateur microscopy and its flourishing in the Victorian age. I was able to include my favourite 17th Century scientist Robert Hooke, of the Royal Society, who's excitement initiated real interest in microscopy with his book Micrographia; Darwin, who used a simple microscope on the Beagle and later at home, for example on his studies on the goose barnacle; John McArthur, early 20th Century medical researcher in Malaria who settled in a nearby village in Milton, Landbeach, and who invented the McArthur portable microscope used by the Trans Antarctic Expedition headed by explorer Vivian Fuchs, later Sir Vivian Fuchs, and head of the British Antarctic Survey, now based in Cambridge. John also developed the 1972 prize winning McArthur Microscope in plastic for the Open University, who used nearly 8000 of these for students studying biology in their homes for over 25 years.

I'd brought my Watson Kima microscope along, dating from 1957, just one year after I was born (and the year that the Trans Antarctic Expedition successfully completed its journey after 99 days), to look at a few prepared slides, one of Black Oak by Ernie Ives, a Foraminiferan mount by Brian Darnton and a Head louse prepared by myself. The spotlights onto the plinth provided sufficient light and an additional bond of the activity to the plinth to let me view and photograph the samples.

There had been queries about bringing glass slides onto the Plinth for safety reasons (glass was excluded). however, I conducted a full risk assessment - the first submitted by a Plinther! And special permission was granted in advance. (Copy of Risk Assessment here)

The highlight for me was the sample that I had plundered from the fountain in Trafalgar Square (with permission!). The small amount of green sediment captured in a plastic Petri dish not only contained algae, but a free living nematode! A particular delight as I'd worked on parasitic nematodes in the past.

The hobby of microscopy was brought bang up to date by using a digital camera to capture images and then to upload them using a dongle on my laptop to a Picasa album for all to see (see the album at , for time reasons, I did the upload back in the One & Other shelter).

This would all have been a little remote for the viewer at times as they could not see the samples and photos there and then. I was therefore extremely pleased that, thanks to the generosity of Peter Burt and Jamy Limited, I had a brilliant banner with large photos that I could demonstrate to both the small audience at the base of the plinth and the cameras.

All that remained at the end was to round off with a summary and to pack up. The last few minutes were used to photograph the steel Plinth surface which, after 60 days or more, was showing interesting surface effects (see slide show at top).

Emotionally, I came off on a high that stayed with me for several days. I spent some time back in the One & Other shed uploading pictures. Then, because there was no tube running and no trains to Cambridge till early morning, I set off at around 4am to wander the streets of London with the camera, finally progressing the Victoria Embankment from the Houses of Parliament in the dark to St Paul's at dawn.

Arriving back in Milton, I collapsed in bed and finally slept, with a deep sense of satisfaction at taking part as a small facet in this snapshot of people in Britain in 2009.

I would like to express my special thanks to all those who commented and supported me on my Plinther's Chris_T_1 One&Other page.

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