This week I visited Wellcome Collection’s newest temporary exhibition, Teeth.
Before this exhibition, I had obviously not considered the cultural and historical significance of teeth and dental hygiene – of course visiting Teeth at the Wellcome Collection has entirely changed that.
Tracing the evolution of our relationship with our teeth, the exhibition shows 150 objects, from current dental ‘grills’, to ancient protective amulets and barber-surgeon chairs. As is typical with Wellcome Collection’s interpretation, while their exhibitions inevitably have some focus on the science and medical aspects of their objects and stories, at the root (tooth pun unintended) are the social histories.
Curated in the signature beautiful colour palette, the exhibition was visually stunning. From every angle the exhibition was striking and ready to be photographed. In striking but subtle pastels, the focus remains on the objects themselves, especially the contrasting dark wood of the barber-surgeon chair looming above.
The common fear of dentist chairs isn’t alleviated by the exhibition. Featured is all manner of terrifying tooth-pulling ‘keys’, drills, sharp instruments, and aluminium dentures. But charmingly, perhaps necessary after seeing all the inevitably painful Victorian methods of dental treatment and anaesthesia oil painting, the exhibition includes letters to and ‘from’ the tooth fairy. These letters are given centre stage, mounted on a significant wall at the far end of the exhibition. The importance of dental health for children, or perhaps the encouragement from parents, is consistently displayed in the exhibition.
As always, Wellcome Collection displays its human remains tastefully and ethically, consistently reminding visitors with clear signage that these are real people, not to be photographed. As always, Wellcome Collection displays its human remains tastefully and ethically, consistently reminding visitors with clear signage that these are real people, not to be photographed.
One of the key pieces of the exhibition is Napoleons toothbrush. With the handle made of silver, and engraved with Napoleons Coat of Arms, the significance that Napoleon placed upon his dental health sits well in the context of the exhibition. A biographer of Napoleon, F Masson, maintained that Napoleon would brush carefully morning and night, and clean his tongue with a silver scraper.
Teeth is open at Wellcome Collection in London from 17 May–16 September 2018.