University of Dundee’s ‘Martian Autopsy’


University of Dundee’s ‘Martian autopsy’

We asked Dr Daniel Cook, Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Dundee, to reflect on the success of ‘Martian Autopsy’ – an event organised as part of Dundee’s 2016 festival hub programme ‘H. G. Wells at 150: Hope and Fear’. Led by the University of Dundee, the programme was delivered in collaboration with partners including The McManus Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee Comics Creative Space, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, and Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA).

Tell us a bit about your event. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?

For Being Human 2016 we wanted to explore the legacy of SF author H. G. Wells during celebrations of his 150th year. All of the events were aimed at the general public, university staff and students. As part of a ‘festival hub’ programme, we delivered a range of activities across Dundee including walking tours, talks, an exhibition and comics workshops aimed at families. Our headline event however was undoubtedly our ‘Martian Autopsy’.

In association with Dame Sue Black and Herbert Unwells (Eddie Small), we conducted a mock-autopsy on a Wellsian alien in a special, one-off event that showcased the impact of the literary imagination on scientific endeavour and the scientific imagination on literary practice. This event was filmed in front of a live studio audience.

The audience capacity for the event was 250 people. We were delighted to have a full house on the night, and we will be expanding the reach of the event by circulating a film of the autopsy via DVD and on YouTube.

What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your events?

The multi-departmental collaboration on the Martian Autopsy proved particularly satisfying. Over a period of six weeks students from the art college produced a full-scale model of an alien based on Wells’s fiction and speculative essays, as outlined in workshops run by Drs Keith Williams and Daniel Cook. Dame Sue Black, our autopsyist, then provided notes, which informed the ongoing work of the students. In the meantime, our film crew worked on logistics (how does one light a dissected alien, after all?) and the actors worked on a script and staging. The final product – an hour-long performance – enthralled a packed room. And the filmed version will be released soon for the whole world to see.

What were the main challenges you encountered or what, if anything did not work well as you hoped?

The main challenge, we’ve found, has been how to juggle the marketing of multiple events – if the dates are in close proximity and on similar topic there is some danger of confusion arising. This is exacerbated if, after the booklet has been published, events have to be moved to different dates. So it’s important to stick fairly rigidly to a designated time and slot (and venue, etc.) where at all feasible.

What, if any, other audience outcomes did you identify? What were the main outcomes for you and /or your organisation?

The marquee events, particularly the Martian Autopsy, generated a lot of buzz before they took place (we filmed a teaser trailer, for one thing) – and we’re delighted to see this reflected in the feedback. Dame Sue even signed autographs for young children now interested in forensic science. Events with relatively small turnouts on the day itself (e.g. our roundtable discussion on Robert Duncan Milne, a local SF writer who influenced Wells) had a different kind of impact – we’ve received applications to our new Masters in Science Fiction programme that expressly reference Milne and the event itself.

What top tips would you give to anyone contemplating or running a similar event or events in the future?

  1. Embrace your own creativity as much as that of other people
  2. Consider unconventional partners and spaces
  3. Make sure your events are as inclusive as possible (e.g. access to the buildings)