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The Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition – Last chance to see

October 8, 2014

ArtsGroup ExhibitionMixed Media | by Maxine Kirsty Sapsford


R for RESOURCEFULNESS, A case of false eyes. White glass with blood vessels in red and a variety of coloured lenses Made by W. Halford of London. English, c. 1890 © Science Museum/Wellcome Library
R for RESOURCEFULNESS, A case of false eyes. White glass with blood vessels in red and a variety of coloured lenses Made by W. Halford of London. English, c. 1890 © Science Museum/Wellcome Library

 

This exhibition is a sensory delight from the moment you walk through the door – from when you feel the cool, conditioned air and smell the varnished wood floor. The perception of our senses is, of course, a part of the human condition and this journey through time and across the world is an educational insight into the compelling nature of humankind. The biology of our bodies, our indefatigable inquisitiveness and our intelligence is all brought together in this interactive microcosm.

 

L for LEARNING, Statuette from the Wellcome Museum of Medical Science (1914-1989) ©  Wellcome Collection, (statuette – depicting rickets)
L for LEARNING, Statuette from the Wellcome Museum of Medical Science (1914-1989) ©
Wellcome Collection, (statuette – depicting rickets)

‘Idiosyncratic’ this exhibition most definitely is; from the wooden tables and pencil pots for engaging in the various activities to the maps on the wall leading to display cabinets. Sitting in the little seats at the low tables, one is reminded of being in a school classroom. Learning – one of humankind’s most instinctive traits – is central. Following the alphabet in a clockwise direction, you journey through time; seeing a waxwork model of a woman with AIDS suffering great physical pain – a reminder that the afflicted are human too – a video of the birth of the first ‘test-tube baby’, a statuette of a child with rickets, a selection of nineteenth-century prosthetics, a study of the Victorian pseudo-science phrenology and tomes written in Latin, amongst other things. These all merge to create a fascinating union of philosophy, science and imagination.

 

The interactive side of this exhibition embodies the ever-increasing interest that we have in who we are and who we share our world with. Visitors are compelled to engage in answering key ethical questions such as, ‘If there was a pandemic, should we be forcibly quarantined? Yes or no?’ Their creativity is let loose in being given the chance to contribute to a chain story beginning ‘Once upon a time’; the results of which are highly entertaining. Nonetheless, behind the silliness of some of the stories, there lie fundamental human concerns: love, identity, philanthropy, the search for kindness. Each story might begin a cliché but the very uniqueness of what follows is part of the exploration of the human condition.

 

K for KEEPING UP APPEARANCES, Claxton earcap. English, 1925-1936 © Science Museum/Wellcome Library This earcap, patented by Adelaide Claxton, was designed to correct ‘outstanding’ ears.
K for KEEPING UP APPEARANCES, Claxton earcap. English, 1925-1936 © Science Museum/Wellcome Library
This earcap, patented by Adelaide Claxton, was designed to correct ‘outstanding’ ears.

The exhibition addresses abstract principles in physical form, exploring our innate inclination to ‘take things literally’. The sight of a waste paper bin full of scrunched up balls of paper – bizarre and incongruous, surrounded by ancient sculptures, books and artefacts – is in fact where visitors are invited to ‘throw away their fears’. Write them down and banish them. The very tangibility of the act is a reminder of how hard it is for our psyche to behave in the same way.

 

O for OBSOLETE KNOWLEDGE, Chart of a head containing over thirty images symbolising the phrenological faculties.  Coloured wood engraving by Henri Bushea after Orson Squire Fowler, c. 1845 © Wellcome Library
O for OBSOLETE KNOWLEDGE, Chart of a head containing over thirty images symbolising the phrenological faculties. Coloured wood engraving by Henri Bushea after Orson Squire Fowler, c. 1845 © Wellcome Library

The vast timespan covered represents the enduring quest for answers to the ‘human condition’. It doesn’t end with the alphabet. Instead, we see a snapshot of what has been and are allowed to muse on what is to come. The interactive side of the exhibition is firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, with visitors invited to share their experiences, take pictures of nature and share them on social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. The response that the Welcome Collection has received to this confirms that the age-old curiosity of who we are, why we are here and our perpetual desire to know more about our world and history is still very much alive.

 

The only way to get the best out of this wonderful exhibition is to experience it first-hand. Be lifted by listening to jazz music and mellowed by a violin concerto and discover just how large the Human Genome would look if it was documented on paper. Be fascinated.

 

Sarah Wildblood

 

The Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition is showing at the Welcome Collection, Euston until Oct 12th. For more information go to wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/the-human-condition.aspx.