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We The Curious: Bringing Arts and Sciences Together Donna Speed

Written by Donna Speed

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Millennium Square at half-term. (Lisa Whiting)

The first major Bristol Ideas project was Bristol 2000/At-Bristol on the Harbourside, now We The Curious. Bristol Ideas always embraced arts, nature and science in its understanding of culture. The commitment to build new cultural facilities in the centre of the city, new ideas for the Harbourside area, the relocation of the Exploratory from Temple Meads and Millennium Commission lottery funds meant that We The Curious could be created. Donna Speed, director of We The Curious, looks at what has been created and its impact.

At the heart of Bristol’s picturesque Harbourside, among the vibrant cafés, restaurants and bars, you will find We The Curious. Conceptually and architecturally, it is a testament to the enduring impact of Bristol Ideas’ pivotal role in the regeneration of Bristol’s Harbourside area. Intertwining art and science, making knowledge accessible and engaging for all, it symbolises a celebration of human curiosity, an open invitation to explore the wonders of the universe. In the late 1990s, Bristol Ideas set the stage for a renaissance of culture and science in Bristol. Bristol Ideas was behind the inception of At-Bristol, with the vision that it would be much more than just a museum. Its mission was simple yet profound: to make science accessible and engaging for all, by bridging the gap between arts and sciences, and placing scientific discovery as part of everyday life for everyone within the city.

The chosen venue for this inspirational venue? A derelict building in the rundown Harbourside area.

In 1993 Bristol Harbourside was mostly derelict with the old goods shed being used for car parking and car boot sales. By 2000 it had been transformed into a vibrant new arts and science centre and a place for people. Here’s the goods shed as it was in 1993. (Bristol Post).

The Harbourside of now is a far cry from the one that existed at the end of the last century, when much of the area was in ruin, including the building that now houses We The Curious. Like many former dock cities, Bristol’s Harbourside had fallen into a state of disrepair from its peak in the nineteenth century, when its Floating Harbour was a technological marvel that allowed it to trade across Europe, through to the end of the twentieth century, when it was a largely derelict shell of its former self.

Bristol Ideas helped to envisage a revitalisation of the area that would see, at its core, a multi-disciplinary centre intertwining the arts, media, natural history and physical sciences. Housed in the building that was once the goods shed for Brunel’s Great Western Railway, this idea came to life as one of the Millennium Commission’s Science Centres.

At-Bristol became the pioneering Harbourside project: a catalyst for the revival of a once-neglected area. This landmark initiative ignited a wave of investment and paved the way for a vibrant Harbourside community, with cultural and scientific institutions, shops, galleries, museums, hotels and recreational spaces that transformed it into a bustling hub of activity.

We The Curious now sits there nestled between the open public spaces of Anchor Square and Millennium Square, its large glass windows reflecting skaters, dancers and passersby who come together to use them as social spaces and a thoroughfare respectively.

Science is an integral part of our everyday culture, and it is for everyone. When At-Bristol first opened its doors in 2000, it marked a pivotal moment for the city. It was a celebration of human curiosity, an open invitation to explore the wonders of the universe, both great and small, through its mission of ‘making science accessible to all’.

At the heart of this innovative endeavour, first given voice by Professor Sir Richard Gregory, pioneer of the Exploratory, was the attempt to reconcile the often polarised disciplines of art and science, recognising that the two were not isolated but inextricably linked, enriching each other, and contributing to a deeper understanding of our world. A ‘first of its kind’, At-Bristol sought to create an environment where visitors could ‘play with science’, by interacting with exhibits, participating in experiments and connecting with current science.

Over the years, the original intent, to explore the relationship between art and science, was sometimes lost, so the team at At-Bristol started to ask themselves, ‘who and what are we for?’. Was the original aim of ‘making science accessible to all’ still relevant?

In 2017, we saw the culmination of a long process of self-reflection and reinvention involving visitors, staff, city stakeholders and the community of Bristol: At-Bristol evolved into We The Curious. We The Curious encapsulates the long-term impact of Bristol Ideas’ vision, shaped and driven by the people of Bristol. Today, it continues to connect people with hands-on experiences, exhibits, live experiments and events that challenge our perspectives and ignite curiosity, but crucially these experiences come from the people of the city, in line with the original Bristol Ideas concept. A true testament to the power of co-creation.

Science is creative, messy and beautiful, while the arts possess the unique power to deeply inspire action in response to the ideas they present. Both are interconnected and an integral part of everyday culture. We The Curious continues Bristol Ideas’ legacy by fusing the two disciplines in a way which enables visitors to collectively experience science in a unique, engaging and often surprising way.

Science can sometimes feel intimidating or inaccessible, but We The Curious creates a space for individuals of all ages and backgrounds to explore, celebrating mistakes and breakthrough moments as part of the scientific process. Science thrives on fresh ideas, diverse perspectives and multigenerational connectivity to address complex issues. Visitors are encouraged to ask questions, to experiment and to develop a deeper understanding of the world around them. We The Curious serves as a platform where everyone can voice their opinions, contribute to scientific discussions, and participate in addressing the ‘wicked problems’ facing humanity.

We The Curious is not only a place of scientific exploration but also a trusted space for connection and discussion. It was proud to be a part of the incredible Festival of Ideas programme, hosting fascinating discussions that brought together some of the brightest minds in various fields. The Festival of Ideas became a platform for in-depth conversations which explored pressing issues in society. It was an opportunity for the public to engage with thought leaders, academics and artists on topics ranging from climate change and technology to social justice and the future of cities. We The Curious played a vital role in providing a space for these discussions to take place, further enhancing its status as a hub for culture and exchanging ideas.

The impact of Bristol Ideas extends far beyond the walls of We The Curious. The organisation’s pioneering work has left an indelible mark on the city’s culture, economy and educational landscape.

The legacy of Bristol Ideas and the ongoing success of We The Curious are a shining example of how bringing art and science together can lead the way towards a brighter, more enlightened future. Their combined efforts have transformed the cultural and scientific landscape of Bristol, fostering a spirit of curiosity, innovation and inclusivity that will continue to shape the city for generations to come.


In 1993 Bristol Harbourside was mostly derelict with the old goods shed being used for car parking and car boot sales. By 2000 it had been transformed into a vibrant new arts and science centre and a place for people. Here’s the goods shed as it was in 1993. (Bristol Post).

Donna Speed is committed to science communication. She is CEO at We The Curious and has worked for the organisation since 2000.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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