Seeing the unseen: new exhibition Wonder Materials explores how graphene could change our world

A new exhibition at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester explores the potential impact of ‘wonder material’ graphene through photography, poetry, conductive displays and a video installation by Rain Room creators Random International

16-07-21-GRAPHENE31806
Image: David Shaw

Graphene – a 2D material made up of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice – was isolated by Russian scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov at Manchester University in 2004. The pair used sticky tape to extract it from graphite drawing pencils and received a Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery.

Often described as a “wonder material”, graphene is around 200 times stronger than steel yet lightweight and flexible and more conductive than copper. The University of Manchester believes it has the potential to transform manufacturing – it could be used to make computers run faster, batteries last longer and touch screens more conductive and it could even help make water desalination more efficient in areas where fresh water is scarce. Scientists have also been researching its potential impact in healthcare – in March this year, a team in Korea announced they had been working on a patch made from graphene for people with diabetes, which detects glucose levels in sweat and administers the drug metformin when blood sugar is too high. 

A new exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester uses photography, poetry, interactive displays and an installation from Random International (creators of the Barbican’s Rain Room) to help explain graphene’s potential impact on the world and highlight the importance of Geim and Novoselov’s discovery.

present-panos-lightbox-©-david-shaw
Lightboxes featuring images by Panos Pictures photographers show areas where graphene is already having an impact in the world. The image shown here was taken by Ian Teh at a Samsung Factory. Image: David Shaw. Lead image (top) by Angela Moore

Designed by Universal Design Studio and LucienneRoberts+, the exhibition begins with a series of objects which bring to life the story of graphene and its isolation (pictured above). Items on show include an Elizabethan cannonball, early pencils and the sticky tape dispenser used by Geim and Novoselov. Curator Danielle Olsen says it aims to introduce visitors to graphene using tangible objects in the absence of a material they can see and touch.

“The challenge with this exhibition was really, ‘how do you make an exhibition out of something you can’t see, and that also captures some of the potential excitement around this new material?'” she explains. “The first section deliberately feels like an old museum exhibition, with glass cabinets and microscopes you can look in to … and it’s all about building the story behind graphene and hinting at what’s to come,” she adds.

present-david-shaw-photography-panos-lightbox-©-david-shaw
The ‘present’ section of the exhibition features life-sized photographs of the National Graphene Institute in Manchester, which aim to make visitors feel as if they have stepped inside the building. Image: David Shaw
16-07-21-GRAPHENE31866
Graphics were created by LucienneRoberts+, who worked on the exhibition’s 2D design. Image: Angela Moore

Another section aims to highlight current work being done with graphene – visitors step into a room surrounded by life-sized photographs of the ‘clean room’ at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester, with lightboxes. On one wall, a series of lightboxes display images of places where graphene is already having an impact in the world, including a water desalination plant in Abu Dhabi and a mine in Sri Lanka.

“The window views were sort of inspired by old dioramas,” says Olsen. “They’re about glimpsing the near future [of graphene], the future that’s already underway. This new world of 2D materials has a very individual, personal impact – one of the areas it will probably have most impact is around flexible computing, and wearable devices – but it could also be used to address global challenges like water, so the photographs are way to help people engage with that, of combining the personal and the large-scale,” she explains.

Also in this space is a collection of lockers in the style of those used to store employees’ personal possessions in labs. Each locker introduces someone who is working with graphene, from a woman making kirigami sculptures to another photographing atoms, with videos and images of their work as well as objects they have created.

present-lockers-panos-lightbox-©-david-shaw
Lockers are used to house objects, videos and photographs highlighting a handful of people who are working with graphene in unusual ways, including a woman who creates kirigami sculptures. Image: David Shaw
16-07-21-GRAPHENE31894
Lightboxed and lockers in the ‘present’ section of the exhibition, which explores how graphene is already impacting our world. Image: Angela Moore

Olsen says the display aims to visualise the versatility of graphene and its potential uses in an accessible way. “When you find people who are very excited about graphene and are engaging with it in a visual way, that’s really helpful,” she adds. “They are doing things we can understand because we can talk about it in a familiar language but [their work is] also visually interesting.”

An area examining graphene’s potential impact invites visitors to think about future uses of graphene, with objects they can touch and interactive displays created using conductive ink. Illustrations are revealed when conductive displays are touched, helping explain potential applications of graphene – an image of a t-shirt, for example, illustrates different kinds of wearable technology being developed using the material while an image of a bucket and spade highlights its role in helping make seawater safe to drink. Displays were created by technology consultancy Hirsch & Mann and illustrated by Russell Bell.

16-07-21-GRAPHENE31925
Interactive displays created using conductive ink help illustrate potential future uses of graphene. Displays were created by Hirsch & Mann with illustrations by Russell Bell. Image: Angela Moore

“When you first see the wall, everything looks very normal – you see a white shirt, and a bucket and spade – but then you touch them and something extraordinary is revealed,” explains Olsen. “It’s a very basic use of graphene [using it to create conductive ink] but the idea was to get across very simply what is possible with graphene. Because it’s not something you can touch and hold, the idea was to show how it can take ordinary things and do something extraordinary with them.”

Olsen says this section showcases what is known to be possible with graphene, focusing on areas where extensive research has already been done rather than speculating about potential uses that have not yet been tested. “We’re not interested in hype, because there has been a lot of that … so these are things where we can point to research that’s being done and things that are already happening. There are so many potential applications of graphene, we just wanted to pull back and say, ‘we know graphene’s great but what’s it for? And where can it take us?” Alongside the interactive displays is a poem by Lemn Sissay which reflects on the isolation of graphene and its potential to change the world (you can watch a reading of it here).

The exhibition ends with a video installation by Random International, who created the hugely popular Rain Room installation at the Barbican back in 2012. The group undertook a three-month residency at the National Graphene Institute and have created a 12-metre video artwork which features footage of a steamroller rolling towards the screen and flattening everything in its path. Olsen says the artwork aims to convey the force of graphene’s potential impact. “It’s quite ambiguous, and I hope it will make people stop and think, ‘Is this good? Is this bad? How do we feel about it?’” she says.

16-07-21-GRAPHENE31960
Random International’s installation for Wonder Materials: Graphene & Beyond aims to communicate the force of the technology. Image: Angela Moore

Graphics for the show were created by LucienneRoberts+, with ‘peeling’ letterforms referencing graphene’s material structure. Posters for the show feature an image by Angela Moore, inspired by its ‘wonder material’ status.

By combining photography, video, poetry and interactive displays, Olsen says she hopes the exhibition will be engaging even for those with little interest in science and no previous knowledge of graphene. “It could have been quite dry and I hope this is not,” she says. Jason Holley, co-director at Universal Design Studio, says: “For me, the really interesting thing with this is the role of creativity within scientific enquiry, in helping imagine what’s possible.”

The exhibition will tour nationally and internationally after an eleven-month residency in Manchester, visiting London’s Science Museum in 2018.

Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond opens at the Museum of Science and Industry on July 23 until June 25 2017. Entry is free. For details, see msimanchester.org.uk

More from CR

D&AD New Blood: Product & Service Design

From a beauty brand challenging gender stereotypes to an online store helping interns take a stand against exploitation, we round up some of the Yellow Pencil-winning product and service design projects from this year’s D&AD New Blood Awards

Gradwatch: Freya Morgan

Meet Freya, illustration graduate from Central Saint Martins, who introduces us to her wonderfully weird world where plants swap places with humans

Lecturer Design Management

Kingston University

Design Assistant

Cultureshock Media