Science Gallery shows us that home is where the heart and the hazards are

The exhibition Home/Sick examines positive and negative aspects of home

Home is a place of safety and comfort, a space where happiness is assured. Or is it? It is a place of refuge but also of risk, a place where you can relax or suffer anxiety (about making the mortgage payments, for example).

Statistics suggest you are twice as likely to visit hospital following an accident at home compared with an accident on the road, and it is this positive-negative dichotomy that comes under scrutiny in a new exhibition, Home/Sick, which opens at the Science Gallery in Dublin on May 1st.

"Home/Sick is about examining our preconceptions, our hopes, our fears about home and how it is changing," says Ian Brunswick, the gallery's acting director. "All the pieces in the show have this duality. Our home is a really important place for how it shapes our lives, but, on the other hand, homes can be unhealthy places or cause accidents," he says.

The exhibition examines how advanced technology can deliver benefits, for example through the use of in-home medical diagnostic sensors.


“That is a cure for a problem, but we want the audience to consider: is this the way we want the idea of home to change?” he says.

People are passionate about home ownership, but this helped to feed the property boom and subsequent bust. “Also, people have preconceptions about what a home should be, and there can be unrealistic expectations. Home might be a hotel room if you have to travel a lot.”

Home/Sick picks up on some of the contradictions of how we understand the meaning of home, says Anna R Davies, a professor of geography and director of the environmental governance research group within Trinity College Dublin's school of natural sciences.

“It looks at the notion of home in all its dimensions. Home can be comforting and nurturing, but can also a place of domestic violence or abuse. It can be a place of safety but also danger if you slip in the bath or get carbon-monoxide poisoning or fall down the stairs,” she says.

The exhibition also looks at what home could become, she adds. “If we imagine the house of the future, what will it be like and how can we make it healthier or more sustainable?”

One view of the future is presented in Parasite Farm, where urban dwellers can reconnect with where our fruit and veg comes from by growing their own. Attractive plant boxes are placed among the existing furnishings, as are the tiger worms and micro-organisms that turn food scraps into fertiliser for plants. A chopping board for vegetables serves as the lid for the container that holds the worms.

Your body serves as a home for teeming bacteria, which set up camp in cosy, warm places such as your belly button, as portrayed in the exhibit Host. The organisms take advantage of the space, but it is a two-way street: we carry within us organisms that are essential to help us digest our food.

Visitors will be encouraged to reveal their own collections of bacteria by swabbing their bellybuttons with a cotton bud and then depositing the bacteria on an agar plate to see what lives in this personal neighbourhood.

Monitoring health

Ways of monitoring people in their homes are explored in Bringing Health Home. The Smart Mouth Guard is a non-invasive way to detect acid reflux disease, and smart plasters provide an analysis of sweat for conditions such as diabetes. Smart slippers sense if a person has an off-balance gait and is likely to fall. S Plus, meanwhile, is a non-contact system to improve people's sleep patterns.

A collection of sensors is used in the exhibit Mother and the Motion Cookies. These can be tailored to the individual to detect if a person has got out of bed or taken their daily medication.

Home/Sick also looks at domestic objects, including smart domestic appliances. Blendie is a 1950s vintage blender that has been updated with hardware and software to allow you to talk to it.

Human-machine communications allow you to forget the buttons and make the blender change speeds by making low-pitched growls to make it spin slowly or speed it up by using higher pitched sounds. Effectively you will be imitating the noises it makes so you will be speaking its language.


Visitors to the Science Gallery's exhibition Home/Sick have an opportunity to be part of the show. By revealing, anonymously, your showering habits, you will be supporting a major research project that is being funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Prof Anna Davies is a curator of Home/Sick and the principal investigator of a research project called Consensus. Its goal is to study how we consume resources as we live our lives, and how we can change to consume in a more sustainable way.

HomeLab, which is part of Consensus, looks at consumption patterns in the home. "One area we are looking at is water use and personal washing: the single largest end use of water in the home," says Prof Davies. HomeLab found that people could reduce their water consumption by an average of 47 per cent by changing how they showered.

She will gather more data from the exhibit WashLab, which is part of Home/Sick. People will be encouraged to step into a shower unit – without water, of course – and use touchscreens to describe how they like to shower. They will then learn how they can save water by making small changes.

Some prefer a “wake-up” shower, typically short but often repeated at other times of the day. Busy mothers often prefer an “escape shower”, which may last longer but only occurs infrequently.

The 16- to 25-year-old contingent choose the “intensive grooming” shower, which includes extras such as shaving or face packs. Then there is the “therapeutic” shower to ease pain.

Whatever your preference, WashLab will suggest how to save water and will collect anonymous data for HomeLab.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.