Celebrating 50 years in Norwich

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of this move to its spiritual home the John Innes Centre opened its doors to the public for the first time in eight years

The last time we opened our doors to the public was back in 2009, for our centenary celebration. Much has changed in the eight years since then and we were eager for another chance to tell the public about our research.

For the John Innes Centre, the support of our local community is very important, and equally important is keeping the public informed about our work, so in the build-up to the event we were delighted to appear on BBC Look East, Future Radio and in the Eastern Daily Press for the chance promote the event across Norfolk.

On the Thursday before the event, BBC Radio Norfolk’s Thordis Fridriksson broadcast her show live from one of our laboratories. The three-hour morning show included interviews, hands-on demonstrations and guest appearances from Director Professor Dale Sanders and Professor George Lomonossoff.

Dr Anne Edwards captivated listeners with her animated telling of the invention of the famous ‘John Innes’ compost, and how the recipe was given away as part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign in the Second World War. The show finished with a glorious hour of plant and science-themed songs requested by the listeners.

In the days and weeks before the event staff from across our site came together to transform the Conference Centre, greenhouses, seed store and grounds into an interactive, accessible, and fun-packed exhibition of our science. We have a large site, but we wanted to give visitors the chance to get up close and personal with our research.

Saturday dawned breezy and wet, but thankfully that didn’t seem to dissuade the eager public from attending. Despite the doors officially opening at 10am, the Conference Centre was awash with visitors by 9:45.

All the volunteers were quickly in the thick of it, running busy activities, tours and exhibits spread across the site. The eagerness of staff to get involved was inspiring, matched only by the interest and enthusiasm shown by the visitors.

By 11am the whole site was buzzing as visitors got hands-on with all manner of activities including extracting DNA from a strawberry, making DIY lava lamps, listening to a tree drinking, tasting pea snacks, following the tree trail and exploring our greenhouses.

At times it seemed as though half of Norfolk had turned up, from the very young to the very wise, and everything in between.

Most amazing of all was how many young children came along, and how willing they were, not just to have fun, but also to learn. Specialist tours of our seed store, historical collections, bioimaging and metabolomics departments proved more popular than expected and the limited spaces quickly filled up, unfortunately leaving some disappointed.

As the day wound to a close and staff came together to begin the clear up, there was a great sense of achievement among the tired feet and sore throats. An estimated 3,000 people attended on the day, far exceeding our expectations. Most visitors came from nearby but we also welcomed visitors from as far afield as Devon, Nottinghamshire and even one group from Canada.

The overwhelming positive response from the visitors demonstrates a great appetite for science among the general public. And with so many people asking, “When will the next open day be?”, perhaps we won’t wait eight years to do it all again.

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