Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Wellcome Collection

Thursday 9 October 2014

183 Euston Road NW1 2BE

Today Linda and I visited the Wellcome Collection, to see their current exhibition, which is an A-Z of the human condition.

By the end of our time there, we realised that we should have begun by reading the introductory signage, and then we should have known that the best way to experience this exhibition was by a regular 26 zig zags across the gallery. Instead we began with 'A' on the near wall and worked our way round to 'Z'. These were very populist exhibits, starting by putting a dot on the map to show where you come from.  

From then on, each letter, whatever its name, involved participation: H was for Heredity, but involved measuring your own height. The wall showed London's average height rather well!  A was for Acts of Faith, and asked for any miraculous escapes, several illustrated by the artist in residence. Several of the others required the taking a selfie and so on, with more Twitter addresses to send things to than you can imagine. When it came to P for Philosophy, we were invited to take a fortune cookie, and open it later. In a couple of places, there were straw polls, with two ballot boxes to pop your tiddlywink vote into:  rather annoying, because if you are asked 'should there be forcible quarantine (yes, Q) during pandemics?' you want to say, 'well, how enforced? who by?' rather than just voting. S was for Skin Art, with an invitation to post your tattoo, and V was a chance to record your Voice.
When we got to Zoonoses, and a couple of board games about the spread of disease, everything became clear, because the 'return wall' if you follow me, was a display of items from the historic collection on the same themes.  So H (heredity, remember) was the first complete print out of the human genome, all100+ volumes of 1000 pages each and 3.4 billion units of DNA.

For S there was some Maori Skin Art, and for M, which was Music, some amazing Tibetan music, which looked like the outlines of clouds, and presumably told the performers what sequence of sounds they should make.

The most upsetting item, for me at least, was in the case for K, Keeping Up Appearances. which included the tiny shoes worm by Chinese women who had had their feet bound to produce 'lily feet'. The hinged metal corset in the same case reminded us that all cultures produce men with peculiar ideas about what makes a woman desirable

When we got to Chemical Life Support, we had a video of the C Section birth of Louise Brown, the first ever IVF baby.

And for Acts of Faith, there were Etruscan votive offerings of the kind that we remember seeing in Spanish churches half a century ago, when people gave their crutches or a model of the part of the body which had been cured, to the Saint who had performed the miracle.  A more moving act of faith was the German memorial to a dead child: the metal penetrated the earth of the grave, to connect the coffin to the world left behind and those who grieved.

So as you see, if we had crossed the room between the old and the new for each letter, we should have made more sense of the point of this exhibition, and put the modern fixation with 'what do you think' into a more historical and scientific context.

Their next event is to be about Human Sexuality and, yes, you are invited to contribute your thoughts about what the exhibition should show.... 

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