An unusual alliance creates an unusual walk-through installation – Guardians of the Gut

24th October 2018

Artists, scientists and hackers have worked together to a make the Guardians of the Gut, an interactive experience to demonstrate how the microbes in our digestive system help to keep us healthy, and it’s coming to the Norwich Science Festival this year. 

Guardians of the Gut will be at the Norwich Science Festival on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th October, in the Forum Atrium, 10am to 4pm. 

You may not know about them, but in your gut are trillions of different microbes, collectively known as the microbiome. Science is now starting to find out how this complex community affects our health. Understanding how this happens is one of the big questions being answered at the new Quadram Institute, on the Norwich Research Park.

Dr Lindsay Hall leads a research group in the Quadram Institute studying how we establish a healthy microbiome. A passionate science communicator, Lindsay wanted to bring alive the excitement and wonder scientists get from learning about this inner microbial world.

“In the lab we are exploring how our microbial residents keep us healthy, and how we can harness these tiny heroes to prevent and treat disease. We are delighted to have a giant gut installation to bring our research and the wider world of microbiome science to life, and it wouldn’t have been possible without this fantastic local collaboration”, said Dr Hall. 

She teamed up with Dr Jenni Rant from the Norwich based SAW Trust, and the result is Guardians of the Gut¸ a giant, walkthrough model of the human colon, complete with its own interactive light up microbiome.

“We’re really excited to be bringing Guardians of the Gut to the Norwich Science Festival. Not only does it showcase some of the cutting edge science going on locally, it also is a result of a fantastic collaboration between some of Norwich’s most creative minds” said Jenni Rant.

Those creative collaborations sparked into life back in 2017, thanks to a grant from the Wellcome Trust. Working with artist  and maker Molly Barrett a flat board with a painting of a gut which illuminated LEDs when various buttons were pressed was designed. This was then turned into a prototype, drawing on the skills and talents of the Norwich Hackspace.

Hackspace founder member Marion Catlin said ‘It is great that Norwich Hackspace members can get involved in such projects and help out. It is what the hackspace is really good at’’

The plan - but how to make this a reality?

The plan – but how to make this a reality?

This activity was run at the 2017 Norwich Science Festival. It was very popular and well-received, so plans proceeded for a bigger, walkthrough version that debuted at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition in London, supported by additional funding from the Microbiology Society and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The challenge this time was to work out how to make a structure large enough and strong enough to walk through but light enough and small enough to fit on a display stand at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition.

Norwich Hackspace members  Archie, Ann, Dan and Florent took on the challenge.

1,500 LEDs programmed to simulate the microbiome

Hackspace member, 18 year old Archie Roques said ‘‘I really enjoyed working on the project with the team from the Quadram Institute’s Hall Lab. It was great to work alongside people who are expert in many different disciplines, from art to molecular biology – and it was really exciting to see the project come together from a pile of experimental bits and wires, to a huge walk-through exhibit! I also learnt lots about all sorts – from big project management to bowel cells!’


The exhibition starting to take shape, along with the gamestations that bring it to life

They had all the skills to make the electronics and programming work – but the structure needed a different kind of expertise.

Enter Tim Tracey from Tin House – a Norwich-based team of technicians and artists who support many outdoor festivals and also built the huge walking elephants for the Lord Mayor’s Procession this year.

Tin House are constantly being asked to make wild and whacky items for performers, shows and festivals so Tim was ready to rise to the challenge too.

Tim Tracey from Tin House said “A challenging brief to make but very educational and great fun to achieve the result working with the team from Hackspace & the Quadram Institute.”

So, with Tim on the structure and the Hackspace team working out the electronics, the next task was to find a space big enough to build the gut as the Tin House workshop was full of elephants! Enter property company Shoe Quarter Ltd who own the development site at St Mary’s Works off Duke Street. They provided a former garage space which enabled the whole structure to be built and tested in time for the Summer Science Exhibition in London in July.

Going from model, to construction, to working exhibit called on the skills of many different people

Again the Guardians of the Gut proved extremely popular. TV and radio presenter and physicist Brian Cox OBE FRS was the first of several thousand visitors who passed through the gut over the week, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Now it’s the chance of the people of Norwich to follow in their footsteps as the next outing will be at the Norwich Science Festival in the Forum Atrium, Norwich.

On 26th and 27th  October visitors to the Norwich Science Festival will be able to walk through the gut and scientists from the Quadram Institute will be on hand to explain how lifestyle choices affect the makeup of the microbiome, and how the microbiome impacts on our health.




About the Quadram Institute

The Quadram Institute is an interdisciplinary research centre at the forefront of a new era of food and health research.  It brings together researchers and clinicians under one roof and houses one of Europe’s largest endoscopy units and a clinical trial facility.  It focuses on lifelong health – from birth and throughout the lifecourse, increasing healthspan as well as lifespan.  It undertakes both fundamental and translational research working with industry to accelerate innovation and bring novel therapeutics and new food products to patients and consumers.

Based on the Norwich Research Park, The Quadram Institute is a partnership between Quadram Institute Bioscience, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the University of East Anglia and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

About SAW Trust

The science, art and writing initiative breaks down traditional barriers between the arts and sciences.

Through creative use of science in the classroom, SAW inspires artistic and scientific endeavour. Children realise that science and the arts are interconnected – and they discover new and exciting ways of looking at the world. SAW projects are accessible to all ages and abilities. They stimulate exploration, enquiry and creativity. And they are fun!

About Norwich Hackspace

Norwich Hackspace is a member-led and inclusive community of people who meet to share creative projects, equipment, tools, skills, knowledge and ideas – old tech and new tech, often re-using, re-purposing and hacking to make new things from old things and taking things apart to find out how they work, and exploring new technology and developments. To find out more about the Hackspace and membership visit

About Tin House
Tin House is a Norwich-based community and participatory arts organisation engaging with groups and individuals, in one-off and on-going workshop scenarios, transforming ideas and imagination into practical, creative reality, by employing a wide range of skills, materials and artists.

Tin House also produces bespoke projects to commission. Projects include celebratory events, theatre and street theatre, costume and props, masks and headdresses, sculptures and lanterns, puppets – giant or small, processional images and decoration.



Related People

Related Targets

Targeting the understanding of the microbiome

Understanding the Microbiome

Related Research Groups

Hall Group

Lindsay Hall

Related Research Areas