Minds and bodies. Infection. Genetics. Environmental breakdown. These are the four themes explored in the new permanent exhibition, ‘Being Human’, which opened at Wellcome Collection earlier this month.
The exhibition replaces the previous permanent display ‘Medicine Now’ which showcased the work of fifty artists reflecting on modern medicine and the human condition. Fast forward 12 years, ‘Being Human’ reveals how far medical science has come in that time, and how our beliefs and attitudes towards bodies, health, and disease continue to change. Wellcome Collection seeks to challenge ‘how we think and feel about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art’; consequently, contemporary issues such as the environmental crisis and data privacy are examined in many of the artworks on display.
The multi-disciplinary, Turner-prize winning architectural design collective Assemble worked with disability groups to ensure accessibility is woven into the layout and design of the new exhibition, with the exhibits set back in recesses to allow for better wheelchair access allowing wheelchair users to be able to get up closer to the visual artworks. The exhibition space feels calmer and more muted than its predecessor, making it easier on the senses to accommodate visitors with sensory processing issues, such as visually/hearing impaired or autistic visitors. The lighting is less harsh on the eyes, and each display is signposted in Braille, with links to BSL and audio descriptions included alongside the texts.
The emphasis on the patient’s voice and feelings is evident in the new set of artworks, with many of the artworks created by patients and disability activists, such as Dolly Sen, whose pieces Help the Normals and Dignity pillboxes highlight the conflicting attitudes towards disability and illness, and the importance of compassion and humanity over biomedicine.
Eleven by HIV-positive artist Kia LaBeija, is an intimate poignant photograph. LaBeija was told she wouldn’t live long enough to go to her prom – her photograph having blood taken whilst wearing her red prom dress is a testament to the power of survival for queer black women. Mental health artist and activist The Vacuum Cleaner worked with children at Greater Ormond Street Hospital to create the interactive display Oh My Gosh, You’re Wellcome… Kitten, where young patients at the hospital created objects that reflected mental wellbeing.
Interactive and multi-sensory artworks include the beautiful glass-sculpture Epidemic Jukebox ,a triumph of sound, light, kinetic sculpture and music – visitors are invited to scroll through a playlist of songs written about or in response to epidemics and infectious disease including HIV and Ebola.
Alongside the Braille description, tactile panels allow visitors to feel and experience the visual textures invoked in two pieces; Tamsin van Essen’s Heirlooms, a set of ceramics inspired by apothecary vases, sculpted and textured to invoke various inheritable conditions including cancer, eczema, acne and psoriasis; and Magic Circle Variation, for which Rogan Brown uses intricate laser cut paper to imagine what the vast bacterial communities that make up our microbiome might look like.
The exhibition even includes artworks that can be smelled – food historian Tasha Marks’ playfully named 5318008 (write it on a calculator and turn it upside down) is a bronze sculpture perfumed with breastmilk and designed to be touched and sniffed. Resurrecting the Sublime is another olfactory artwork – a wooden panel that when rubbed evokes the lost scent of extinct Hibiscadelphus wilderanius flowers. Genetic material extracted from pressed specimens of these flowers produce the smell-producing enzymes; the true smell of the flower is unknown, with the plant’s habitat destroyed by colonial cattle ranching in Hawaii.
Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s Refugee Astronaut is the clear centrepiece of the exhibition – colourful and imposing, it can be seen from any point in the exhibition and it points to anxieties around climate change, migration and our ultimate place in the world and the universe. The Dutch wax print material worn by the astronaut is a nod to colonialism, whilst a nearby protest banner by Isaac Murdoch, an indigenous artist and environmentalist from the Onaman Collective, who carried the banner at the Standing Rock Protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North America, is a stark reminder of how colonial violence perpetuates health inequalities to this day.
Artworks and displays that refer to conflict and catastrophe are a common theme. The stunning photocollage No Human Being Is Illegal by Latai Taumoepeau and Deborah Kelly highlights the effects of rising sea levels on small island nations. Rising sea levels are also explored in the haunting film Flooded McDonalds by artist trio Superflex, which pictures a life-sized replica fast food restaurant slowly filling with water, raising questions about the role and responsibility of corporations and consumers in climate change.
Other themes explored include vaccine hesitancy and the role of mass communications in spreading fear and misinformation, again making the visitor question the roles of society and the individual in health.
The piece that had the greatest impact on me was the PPE Portrait Project, where artist Mary Beth Heffernan worked with healthcare workers at treatment centres to humanise their infection control suits. The simple but powerful act of attaching photographs of the healthcare workers’ faces to the front of the personal protective equipment had a profound effect on the wellbeing of Ebola patients, reducing fear and providing a sense of human connection during isolation.
I remember visiting ‘Medicine Now’ shortly after it opened in 2007. At the time, I was applying to university to study biochemistry, and was awestruck at the sheer size of the human genome printed out into 109 huge white books – the Library of The Human Genome display which marked the entrance to the exhibition.
The new ‘Being Human’ exhibition highlights for me the importance of engaging with the humanities as a healthcare practitioner. Twelve years after I first visited Wellcome Collection, I have gone from studying biomedicine to working as a clinician providing patient care and researching public health. In 2007, full genome sequencing was in its infancy, taking hours on supercomputers; in 2019 the new installation includes the first ultraportable genetic sequencer to be used in NHS hospitals – the MinION Gene Sequencer. As medical technology continues to rapidly advance, our health, genes and the microorganisms that live on and inside us are turned into vast quantities of anonymised data, and sold to health insurance companies and bio banks that store our information and our DNA. Violence and inequality continue to create interpersonal and ecological conflict, fuelling epidemics and health inequalities. The challenges we face as doctors, dentists, nurses, and ultimately as humans, cannot be addressed by biomedicine and technology alone. ‘Being Human’ reminds us of the need to engage all our physical and emotional senses and make room for the voices of those we are treating to shape the narrative of their care. It reminds us that the simple act of restoring human-to-human connection, particularly in harsh clinical environments and an often hostile world, should be the foundation of medical practice if we are to truly be human.
Anisha Gupta is an NHS dentist and public health researcher, with a background in biomedical science and working in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry. Alongside clinical practice, Anisha is involved in inter-disciplinary research, focusing on the public health impact of consumer products and personal hygiene, as well as the role of the arts and humanities in medical education.