Curating ‘Being Human’


Fiona Johnstone: How did you come to be curating ‘Being Human’, and how long did the process take from beginning through to end?

Clare Barlow: I’ve been working in museums in different roles since about 2005, and I took the role at Wellcome specifically to deliver this project. ‘Being Human’ has been 2 years in the making, although I’ve been interested in the history of the body for a much longer time, and that’s always been a regular feature of my research.

Fiona Johnstone:  A lot of consideration has gone into making the gallery space as accessible as possible. Who did you work with to make this happen? And did accessibility also inform the choice of artists that you worked with?

Clare Barlow: I think there’s two aspects to it. One is ‘accessibility’, which is about the physical space, and the other is ‘inclusivity’, which is about making everyone feel welcome in the space, and ensures that we are offering a platform for a wide range of different perspectives. To make it happen, we set up a consultation with disabled experts through the University of Leicester Research Centre for Museums and Galleries. This was really important, because you can often make a lot of assumptions about what people need, or what people want, or people would like to see, but until of course, until you talk to them you have no idea. In disability activism there is a very profound principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, and we knew that we needed the expertise of people with diverse lived experiences of health. Obviously ‘Being Human’ is a huge topic; one of the big ideas for the gallery is that we are all different, but we are all connected, and we wanted to make sure that we were authentically representing disabled artists and people with different ways of approaching the themes of the show. In terms of the exhibition’s physical design, in addition to that consultation we also did prototyping, where we built a mock-up of one of the plinths, which we tested out with different wheelchair users, which helped us with things like getting the caption angles right. We also did some in-depth consultation with different people to help us understand different impairments, looking at how this might affect how you would move around the space. It was quite a multifaceted process, but obviously we are delighted with how it turned out.

Fiona Johnstone: Were there certain artists that you knew you wanted to work with from the beginning?

Clare Barlow: There were some artists who had been on our radar for a long time, like the vacuum cleaner, who did the commission in partnership with Great Ormond Street Hospital. And there were others whose work we encountered and we wanted to find ways of showing it, like Dolly Sen, or Deborah Kelly, who did the collaborative ‘No Human Being is Illegal’ collages. For any exhibition you want a wide range of different works that will unlock big questions around the themes from lots of different angles. And, of course, the object list was shaped up through the consultation; we took advice on what we were doing well, where the absences were, and on different ways of interpreting objects. That kind of collaborative process is very exciting – it takes you to places that you might not have thought to go.

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Fiona Johnstone: How did you arrive at the four themes of ‘Minds and Bodies’, ‘Genetics’, ‘Infection’, and ‘Environmental Breakdown’?

Clare Barlow: Again, this was a very organic process, coming out of where there was interesting work, but also where there were interesting questions. When you’re doing a permanent gallery one of the questions is around its lifespan. I was aware very early on in the project that we needed to not be seduced by the lure of the new, it’s very easy to end up putting in the latest artwork or technology, but what worked better was structuring it around these deep philosophical questions that tie us all together, that we are all interested in, questions like ‘how much do we really want to know or share about our genetic heritage?’; or questions like ‘how do we know what will keep us safe?’ in the ‘Infections’ section – what sort of information are we drawing on, what decisions are we making, and how are those decisions changing our relationships with one another?  With ‘Environmental Breakdown’ the question was quite clear, which is ‘why is it so hard for us to act?’, and ‘how are we starting to respond to what is being lost?’ In ‘Minds and Bodies’ the question was punchier, and came out of the work that we were doing with the experts who were advising us, which was ‘why do we sometimes acts as if some lives are more important than others?’ These are questions which we are all invested in different ways, and they open up different angles of ‘Being Human’.  There is a kind of connection between them, but at the same time they all unlock questions about ourselves and our position in the world in a really interesting way.

Fiona Johnstone: Are there any artwork that you would have liked to include but couldn’t?

Clare Barlow: No! We are very happy with the selection. Obviously with such a big subject as ‘Being Human’ you could do an exhibition that fills several buildings if not several cities, because we are all so diverse and so varied, and we all have such different approaches to what that means. But what I’m really excited about with this exhibition is the range of different perspectives that visitors can encounter in the space, and the range of different emotional experiences too. There are elements of sheer delight and wonder, like Antoine Catala’s Everything is OK, where the words suddenly pop out of this white sheet. There are some moments of surprise, like suddenly encountering the breast milk sculpture. There are also much more meditative moments, like Basse Stittgen’s Blood Object series, which are very small, beautiful objects made entirely out of HIV positive blood, shown alongside the stories of their donors. I think it really is a question of all of human life being on display in different ways – I think that’s what’s so exciting about this exhibition.

Fiona Johnstone: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Clare Barlow: The key thing for me about this is that over and beyond the four big themes that were looking at in the exhibition, the overarching message is that we are all different, we are all valuable, and we are all connected. I think that it’s been really exciting explaining what that means in all of these different ways, and from all of these different perspectives: science and scientists, artists and artworks, activist projects. There’s a great diversity of content and I hope that will make a really interesting show for visitors.


Clare Barlow curated Being Human, which opened at Welcome Collection in September 2019. Fiona Johnstone is an associate editor for The Polyphony. 

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