Toby Smith

The David Attenborough Building in central Cambridge is a hub for global biodiversity conservation. The Building is home to academics and practitioners engaged in many aspects of understanding and conserving the natural world, ranging from zoological research through to work to protect the world’s pristine habitats and precious species from destruction. The University of Cambridge’s amazing Museum of Zoology, with over 3 million specimens, is also located within the Building, and will reopen later in the year, following extensive refurbishment funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Synergy Project – Installation View

Now a new, publicly-accessible installation on the outside of the David Attenborough Building provides a dynamic window into the activities of those working within its walls. Photographer Toby Smith, in collaboration with 104 contributors from Cambridge and beyond, has adapted, created and curated over 75 unique multimedia segments. Fourteen large HD screens are embedded within the fabric of the David Attenborough Building displaying layers of diverse content to form an engaging and informative media show. The bespoke animations and short films work in harmony to showcase and reveal the work being undertaken within the Building and across Cambridge more generally.

The installation offers the viewer unique glimpses of Cambridge’s best loved spaces, with one film showing a bird’s-eye-view of the Botanic Garden, while others reveal objects and spaces not normally visible to the public, such as behind the scenes in the Museum of Zoology’s collections, and research being conducted in the Department of Zoology. The diversity of nature within and around Cambridge is highlighted by films of people searching for bats on the River Cam at night, time-lapse footage of Wicken Fen through the seasons, and nature reserves in the Cambridgeshire countryside.

As many of the people working in the Building, not least those involved in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, work on biodiversity issues around the world, a number of the films take the viewer around the world, from albatross fisheries in the Southern Pacific to workshops training future conservation leaders in Africa. David Attenborough, as befits a building that bears his name, has his career history and achievements featured on a number of screens.

David Attenborough Building Synergy Project – Supplementary Information

The David Attenborough Building in central Cambridge is a highly visible and accessible hub that aims to raise the profile of nature conservation. Named in recognition of Sir David’s pioneering work in bringing the wonders of the natural world to a global audience, the building provides an environment designed to encourage transformational approaches to understanding and conserving these wonders and the natural capital they represent. Following a 2-year refurbishment programme, the David Attenborough Building now houses the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Zoology, the Babbage Lecture Theatre, research groups from the Department of Zoology and over 500 representatives of the 10 partner institutions that form the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

The Museum of Zoology is home to over 3 million specimens, from tiny flies to the 21-metre-long Fin Whale skeleton. The Museum has been undergoing a major redevelopment, funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This work includes new stores for the collections, new teaching spaces, new displays telling the story of the diversity of animal life, and facilities including a cafe and Museum shop. The Museum Whale Hall is open on Friday and Saturday afternoons, 12-4pm. Previews of the mammal galleries will begin from March 27, and the Museum will be fully open from June 23, with a celebratory Zoology Live Festival on June 23&24.

The Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) is a collaboration between nine leading biodiversity conservation organisations based in and around the city of Cambridge, and the University of Cambridge. By catalysing strategic partnerships between leaders in research, education, policy and practice CCI aims to transform the global understanding and conservation of biodiversity and, through this, secure a sustainable future for biodiversity and society. The CCI partners are BirdLife International, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Cambridge Conservation Forum (CCF), IUCN, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), RSPB, TRAFFIC, Tropical Biology Association (TBA), United Nations Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and the University of Cambridge.

Toby Smith is an award-winning reportage photographer focusing on projects concerning landscape, environment, industrial and science stories. Toby joined the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute at the David Attenborough Building as their inaugural Artist in Residence for 2015. He continues to collaborate within Cambridge on visual projects for exhibition and publication.

Contributor information

Media contributions from, and collaboration with, over 104 researchers, departments and organisations (see list below), edited into 74 unique multimedia segments at launch, with plans for new and refreshed content over time.

The content was chosen to balance and interweave the work being undertaken on biodiversity by institutions based in and around Cambridge including: Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s partners, Museum of Zoology, Department of Zoology, Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, Whipple and Sedgwick Museums, Cambridge Botanic Garden, Herbarium, University of Cambridge Global Food Security Initiative, Sir David Attenborough, and interaction with the local Cambridge environment.

While these institutions are based in Cambridge, the activities and visuals included span every corner of the world, from the depths of the Sumatran rainforest to the plains of the Arctic circle. Animations dive into history with x-rays of geological specimens whilst others look forward to the future via the stained of chromosomes of evolutionary development biology (“Evo-Devo”) research. The perception of time is challenged as a calendar year at Wicken Fen is compressed through time-lapse into 4 mins of footage whilst a high-speed camera renders the intricate limb mechanics of a cricket jump visible in super slow motion.

Technical installation information

14 x 43-inch digital displays have been installed in portrait orientation within 7 exterior cases of the David Attenborough Building. The displays were supplied and fitted by Venue Audio Visual of Cambridge.

Automatic power management and playback displays all 74 films dynamically across the 14 screens.

Each screen shows looped content between 6 and 9 minutes in duration. The screens are programmed to ensure that there is no repeating pattern within any one calendar day.

The screens are set to ‘Eco-Save’ mode and are active between 0830 and 1900 daily.

The David Attenborough Building reduces its carbon footprint and electricity usage with a CHP (Combined Heat and Power Plant) and solar panels estimated to generate 13,000 kWh per year.

Project information

These screens are part of a larger project that aims to create an informative interpretation of the working interface between the Museum of Zoology and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. In doing so, the project reveals why biodiversity is so crucial and what the Cambridge environment is doing to sustain it for future generations. This project has been funded by Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF).

Contributor list

Thanks to every individual and the following institutions who have contributed material to this first phase of content curation, including:

  • Cambridge Conservation Initiative
  • BirdLife International
  • British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)
  • Fauna & Flora International (FFI)
  • International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
  • RSPB
  • Tropical Biology Association
  • United Nations Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre
  • Cambridge Conservation Forum
  • University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI)
  • Museum of Zoology
  • Department of Zoology
  • Department of Geography
  • Department of Plant Sciences
  • Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
  • Whipple Museum of the History of Science
  • Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences
  • Clare College
  • Cambridge University Botanic Garden
  • Herbarium
  • Cambridge Global Food Security
  • The National Trust and Wicken Fen
  • The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire
  • Sir David Attenborough
  • University of Cambridge Communications team