Upcoming Wonder Season and the Brainwaves Weekender @ The Barbican


Personally, I’m rather keen on brains and brain-related things. So it’ll probably come as no surprise that I’m rather excited about the Barbican’s upcoming Wonder Festival devoted to the mind, including a weekend (March 2nd-3rd)  focused on all things brainy. Ahead of the British Neuroscience Association’s festival at the Barbican in April, this season throughout March and April looks to explore the much intertwined relationship between neuroscience and the arts, through a series of talks, workshops, film showings, comedy, theatre and music events. It’s a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, who were also behind that rather brilliant Brains exhibition last year.

Amongst the events on over the season are a few crafty sessions to help people get creative as they get to grips with a bit of neuroanatomy, including sessions where you can knit a neuron and dissect a jelly brain. I’m not sure if these events are more aimed at kids,  but they sound right up my street. Ruby Wax is doing a talk on her experiences of depression, there are showing suitably mind-related films (including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind), amongst many other things. Another rather trusting looking event is ‘The Salon Project‘, an interactive theatrical experience where “You will be costumed in full period evening dress before emerging into a mirrored impression of a 19th-century Parisian salon. As you mingle with guests, pioneers in their fields will provoke discussion, speaking on subjects at the vanguard of 21st-century thought: science, politics, technology and the arts.” Which sounds wonderfully bizarre. I love this entire theme, involving science and art in a way that can get people to think (ha) about the brain and how they interact with their world, in new and creative ways.Watch this space for a report after I’ve been!

Coffee, cake and …kitties? Is London ready for it’s first ‘Cat Cafe’?

Happy new year! I’ve just spotted a wonderful piece of London-based news: plans to open the city’s first (and I believe also the country’s only) Cat Cafe! Lady Dinah is currently raising funding to set up her ‘Cat Emporium’ in East London this March.

This is something I’ve been telling people about since I visited Japan a few years ago, where the concept of the Neko-cafe is quite well established. Cities like Tokyo are heavily populated and living space can be limited, with families often sharing quite small urban apartments. So there’s not much space for a pet. But never fear, with their love of the adorable, kawaii and convenient, comes a pet that can be rented by the hour. It’s rather like a more innocent version of a hostess-bar; for a fee you can enjoy some time in a comfortable parlour, with the fluffy inhabitants. Equipped with soft rugs, cushions, scratching posts and an assortment of hidey-spaces, you can enjoy a cup of tea and spend your allocated period of time playing with and generally lavishing attention on the resident kitties. This definitely appeals if, like me, you rent and aren’t allowed a pet, or are just too busy/broke/irresponsible to take on full ownership of a pet.

Being mobbed by cats at a cafe in Nagoya. Note look of joy.

Being mobbed by cats at a cafe in Nagoya. Note look of joy.

I went to visit a couple of these places and what struck me was the variety of the clientèle  I’d assumed it would mostly be children, brought by their parents to get their cat fix. But actually there were quite a few suited business-men, unashamedly enjoying a bit of cat-action, not to mention groups of would-be cat-ladies. Given the popularity of cat-based internet memes, maybe this really is something with universal appeal? There’s something very relaxing about devoting some quality time to stroking a cat, I’m sure I’ve even read studies attesting to the benefits on body and mind of a bit of cat company (here is a long list of supposed benefits, to be taken with more than a pinch of salt). But annecdotally I’ll say, cats can definitely cheer me up! At one cafe I visited you could pay to buy a little can of tuna, which ensured the instant (and rather frantic) love of the residents, as they clambered over you to get a bite. If only everyone in life was as easy to win over?

I did pick up on a difference between the younger and older cats at the cafe. Much like pet-shop animals who have become used to punters tapping at the glass all day, there were definitely a few world-weary cats who had grown sick of the constant attention and had curled into a ball on a high-up perch, refusing to be tempted away by their public’s finger-clicking and cooing. It does make me wonder what happens when the cats get old, or no-longer want to play nice with the attendees? Though I imagine, much like with the hostess bars, you get the occasional rich benefactor who might fall in love with one of the residents and offers the establishment a good price to take them away to a more private arrangement.

Cats don't make the best employees. Often they just want to sleep, and will resist your ernest attempt to play with them

Cats don’t make the best employees. Often they just want to sleep, and will resist your ernest attempt to play with them

Lauren Pears and co plan to add a bit of British class and elegance to London’s cat cafe, to set it apart from from it’s Asian siblings. I’ve already pledged my funding as I really hope this project goes ahead! I imagine it as somewhere a bit more quirky and whimsical to meet friends than your generic Starbucks, and a quieter and less-alcohol focused evening hangout. I could definitely see myself becoming a regular.

Brains @ The Wellcome Collection

I visited London’s Wellcome Collection for the first time a couple of months ago, and I think it’s already one of my favourite museums. It’s a wonderful conglomeration of two things I love: science and art. It’s a strange and eye-opening place, not too big, but perfectly contained.

Henry Wellcome, innovative pharmacist and businessman, was also a very keen (and rather obsessive) collector of all things medically-related. The collection housed in the museum is a cornucopia of historical artefacts, implements, paintings, photographs and sketches and all number of delightful curiosities. Here you’ll find shrunken heads, chastity belts, paintings of individuals with deformity and Chinese medicine dolls. I found it utterly fascinating.

Often seen as opposites, the second main exhibition  is a collaboration between the worlds of science and art. It houses a collections of pieces of art inspired by science, and science at its most artistic. Exhibits offer artistic interpretations on topics such as malaria, obesity and the genome project, and items such as a large glass sculpture of a virus, show the natural world in its beautiful intricacy.


Box-model of the brain, used for teaching in mid-20th century

With this in mind, I’m very excited that the upcoming exhibition is on one of my favourite topics, Brains! The Wellcome say ‘Our major new free exhibition seeks to explore what humans have done to brains in the name of medical intervention, scientific enquiry, cultural meaning and technological change. Featuring over 150 artefacts including real brains, artworks, manuscripts, artefacts, videos  and photography, ‘Brains’ follows the long quest to manipulate and decipher the most unique and mysterious of human organs, whose secrets continue to confound and inspire.’

I shall be all over this. I expect there will be some items like kits for trepanning, old fashioned brain-maps and a few obligatory brains-in-jars. Quite excited. It’s on from the 29th March – 17th June, I shall report back when I’ve actually gone. In the meantime, they have this nifty game on the website where you can grow your own neuron cell (and compete against a mean rival neuron who keeps getting in your way). It’s pretty distracting.