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24 January 2018


Curator Harriet Loffler and Scientist & Public Engagement Manager Hélène Doerflinger discuss the project ‘Experiments in Art & Science’, a new collaboration that brings three contemporary artists to the Gurdon Institute, in partnership with Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, and funded by Wellcome.

Harriet Loffler: So, Hélène, can you tell us about the Gurdon Institute?

Hélène Doerflinger: The Gurdon Institute is a world-leading centre for research into the biology of development and how normal growth and maintenance go wrong in diseases such as cancer. It was named after its co-founder, John Gurdon, who was the first person in the world to successfully clone an animal (a frog). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work on nuclear transplantation  in 2012. He still has a lab here that continues to study how cells can be reprogrammed.

What made you interested in working with artists?

We’ve been doing a lot of public engagement, especially with young people in schools or at festivals, and we thought it would be interesting to widen our view on how to engage the public in a different way. I was keen to invite artists to echo what we’re doing in the labs. I think that artists’ and scientists’ work share many similarities, and I thought that it would be interesting for them to experiment together, which is what the title of the project suggests – to experiment with what art and science can do together.

You have mentioned before the similarities you see between artists and scientists.  Could you expand on that a bit more?

Both artists and scientists do research before starting a project.  They experiment, they can develop new techniques, and they present their work at the end –  which receives feedback from their peers and the public.

I guess there’s also an element of failure within their work?

Absolutely.  That’s something that we don’t speak a lot about as scientists.  We always publish what is going well.  So yes, there are a lot of failures, and a lot of different attempts to answer a question, which I guess might be similar for an artist.

There’s also a very interesting relationship between the mechanical and the manual, which I see at the Gurdon Institute. There is some very advanced machinery being used and this relationship between the handmade and the use of technology is something you see lots of artists experimenting with.

Yes I agree, and I would also add the intellectual part of it.  You’ve got the thinking behind your project for, I guess, both the artist and the scientist, and then the technical aspect of it, which can be very manual.  Can you talk about the artists who have been appointed for this project?

The three artists are David Blandy, who is based in Brighton and London, and Laura Wilson and Rachel Pimm, both based in London.  They all have diverse practices but what I think connects them is that their work is very interdisciplinary and they are adept at working with collaborators. I think that’s something that attracted us to them, all three have collaborated with scientists or experts in their field in some form before, and that was important for us.

Can you tell us more about how the three artists were selected?

They were selected after lots of research and trying to understand who would be appropriate for the project and had experience of working in this way before, in the form of collaborating. We also wanted their work to speak to the themes of the Gurdon Institute and I think what we’ve discovered by appointing these three artists is that there are some really interesting connections. For instance, Laura Wilson has spent a long time exploring yeast and the properties of bread and in fact what’s interesting about that is at the Gurdon Institute you use yeast as a model, and it has the same properties as animal cells.

What will be the format for the project? How are the artists going to interact with the scientists?

We’ve deliberately kept the project quite open. As it’s a new venture we want to see what happens and wait to see where the connections lie in the areas that they’re interested in. The format is that all the artists are allocated a particular lab and the work that they produce will have some element of involving the public, so that might be something that people can participate in, or visit, or interact with in some way. So we very much see the project being about sharing the research of the Gurdon Institute with a broader and more diverse public.

The very first public will be the scientists and I am excited to see how they will react.

Can you say something about the timing of the project? When might the public get a chance to see what’s happening?

The project has just started.  We aim to have something for the public to see firstly in May and later in July.  Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Kettle’s Yard’s involvement?

Kettle’s Yard have been involved from the very outset.  The Gurdon Institute approached Kettle’s Yard and the project has developed in partnership with them.  The first public event that’s taking place will be at Kettle’s Yard in their newly opened gallery on the 12th May.  

How can people hear more about the project?

We will be announcing the events over the course of the next three to four months.  All of the activity can be found on the Gurdon Institute and Kettle’s Yard websites and you can follow on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #ExperimentsArtScience.