Sunday, October 8th, 2017
This exhibition tells the story of the boring beasts that have changed the world: the mundane creatures in our everyday lives including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice. These animals are rarely represented in natural history museum displays. They are not special enough. People would rather see dinosaurs, dodos and giant whales. The Museum of Ordinary Animals gives these commonplace creatures a chance to tell their stories. It begins by asking where ordinary animals came from, followed by the exploration of the themes of Ordinary Animals in culture, in science and in the environment.
I visited the The Museum of Ordinary Animals on the same day as heading to the Can Graphic Design Save Your Life exhibition at Wellcome Collection. A stones throw away from each other, both newly opened, and both small enough to not be entirely museumed out, it made sense to see the two. Both concerning entirely different topics, it was fascinating to see both in the space of a couple of hours.
The Museum of Ordinary Animals, curated by Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby, opens up the collection to a wholly different narrative that natural history collections are presented. Since the renaissance curiosity cabinet era, natural history collections have existed to exhibit the most curious of animals and the most exciting of species. Collections such as the one held by the Grant Museum in University College London are perceived as a space for awe, wonder and amazement. The Museum of Ordinary Animals appears to be the opposite of that, yet it isn’t.
Focussing on ‘ordinary’ animals doesn’t sound like it would be the most fascinating of topics, of course the animals that are on display are the types of animals you see on a regular basis in farms and even in your own homes. But, key to the exhibitions success is the thematic discussion of the importance of these animals, the threads that tie them to our society makes them anything but ordinary.
One particular theme that interested me was the exhibition’s section on recognising controversy, and how we have impacted the natural world around us – often to it’s demise. This section covered eugenics, animal cruelty, and selective breeding. While our worlds would be an entirely different place without domesticated animals, and while it is uncomfortable to recognise the damage we have done to the animal world, The Museum of Ordinary Animals doesn’t shy away from that. The display stems domestication back to its roots, when wolves were first introduced to nomadic societies in a symbiotic relationship, eventually looking at the sheer damage that selective breeding has caused to species such as Pugs. Linking to the devastating results Darwinian thinking has caused to both the animal world, and the human world when adopted by the Nazi party in the 1930’s, the exhibition highlights the chaotic connection that humans and animals hold.
However, aside from that rather difficult section, the rest of the exhibition maintains a sense of humour throughout, acknowledging the rather bizarre relationship that humans and animals have, as well as the curious world of seemingly ordinary animals.
Overall, The Museum of Ordinary Animals certainly encapsulates the “boring beasts that changed the world” in a human way. In putting the spotlight on the animals that are so often ignored by both natural history museum curators, and the visitors themselves, the exhibition recognises the enormous impact that these species have to our planet. As well as being humorous, enlightening and absorbing, The Museum of Ordinary Animal offers a new way to see the animal kingdom and questions our place at the top of it.
21st September to 22nd December 2017. Free admission.
Grant Museum of Zoology. University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT.
Saturday, September 30th, 2017
Explore the relationship between graphic design and health in our current exhibition. Comprising over 200 objects including hard-hitting posters, illuminated pharmacy signs and digital teaching aids, ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’ will consider the role of graphic design in constructing and communicating healthcare messages around the world, and will show how graphic design has been used to persuade, to inform and to empower. This exhibition will highlight the widespread and often subliminal nature of graphic design in shaping our environment, our health and our sense of self. Drawn from public and private collections around the world, it will feature work from influential figures in graphic design from the 20th century, as well as from studios and individual designers working today. ‘Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?’ is curated by graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright, founders of publishing house GraphicDesign&, with Shamita Sharmacharja at Wellcome Collection.
I took photographs in an exhibition that has a no photography rule, please don’t have me museum overlords! I made sure to not get any artworks in shot, so no copyright will be infringed. (That makes it totally fine, right?!) But, Can Graphic Design Change Your Life, the newest temporary exhibition from the Wellcome Collection was far too beautiful to not get a quick instagram. The colour palette was to die for, gorgeous pastels to envy a Wes Anderson film demand to be photographed.
Can Graphic Design Change Your Life explores the interweaving connection between graphic design and medicine and health, questioning if our lives would be the same without graphic design.
It would be quite easy to miss the beauty of health products. After all, we tend to only use them when we need to, i.e when we’re ill or injured – perhaps not the time when we are most absorbed in the material culture around us. However, what Can Graphic Design Change Your Life highlights is the beauty in the everyday.
I presumed, entirely wrongly, that the exhibition would explore the ways that graphic design can change your life for the better – when walking in you are confronted with the opposite, showing the glamorous and powerful cigarette adverts from the pre-illegalised era. Juxtaposed, fascinatingly, next to the equally powerful design-fuelled advertisements that highlight the health implications and encourage quitting. As a precursor to the centre of the exhibition, the cigarette section indicates the complexity of where the rest is going to take you – quite different to the simplistic ‘graphic design helps pharmaceutical companies save lives’ that I was naively expecting.
Now, as a long-term Wellcome Collection fan girl (as may be apparent from all the other temporary exhibition reviews featured on this blog) it is no surprise that I loved this exhibition, I’m yet to visit one I didn’t. However, I don’t know much about graphic design, and I certainly don’t know much/anything about the world of medicine and pharmaceuticals. So, from an outsider, what struck me most was the importance graphic design holds in the field of health to transcend language barriers.
Can Graphic Design Change Your Life opens up a dialogue about the importance of visuals in healthcare and how design is intrinsic to the success of medicine, and nestled in the Wellcome Collection’s often either social or scientific exploration of medicine, it was a fascinating addition.
Thursday, September 21st, 2017
Situated within the hospital grounds, in a stunning Art Deco building shared with the Bethlem Gallery, Bethlem Museum of the Mind was formally opened by artist Grayson Perry in March 2015. The museum cares for an internationally renowned collection of archives, art and historic objects, which together offer an unparalleled resource to support the history of mental healthcare and treatment.
Open on the first and last Saturday of the month, at the start of this month I headed over to Bethlem Museum of the Mind. Shortlisted for the 2016 Museum of the Year award, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind tackles a difficult history in a reflective, ethically minded, and accessible exhibitions.
The first thing that is wholly needed in a museum that reflects a difficult history is friendly staff and volunteers. Although the building, situated in the midst of a seemingly intimidating hospital complex, the staff when arriving build a welcoming and accessible atmosphere for it’s visitors. Considering that the museum is likely to have visitors with an personally emotional connection to the heritage on display, as well as the contemporary interpretations, the need for friendly and welcoming staff is not to be underestimated.
I willing tried to not read too much about the Bethlem Museum of the Mind before I visited, wanting to let the building speak for itself. So, perhaps naively, I was surprised by the extent of Grayson Perry’s involvement. The housing of the museum in the Bethlem Royal Hospital is fitting, as the hospital – founded in 1247 – was the first UK institution focussed on caring for the mentally ill.
The space is split into three major spaces, two temporary and one permanent exhibition. The first of which, The Art of Recovery, showcases works created to reflect their experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Statues Melancholy and Raving Madness by Caius Gabriel Cibber then lead you up the stairs to the permanent exhibition.
While I shouldn’t be surprised by a museum that opened in 2015, the permanent gallery is modern and bright. Bethlem Museum of the Mind has perfected the fine tuned balance of having digital interactives without being flashy. Although the museum is clearly new in it’s design, I don’t feel that it will age anytime soon.
Most importantly, the permanent exhibition has no shortage of spaces for reflection. As the museum represents the huge topic of mental health in a physically small site, this decision is clearly intentional. One specific break space that is bright and airy with floor to ceiling windows (not photographed but visible in the video) is situated next to an instillation of solitary confinement padded walls. The juxtaposition of these two polar opposites is striking.
Bethlem Museum of the Mind is engaging, while leaving space for much needed contemplation. Awareness and understanding of mental health is slowly growing, perhaps not fast enough but the museum is leading the way – as well as being an fascinating visit.
p.s, charmingly and delightedly, the man in the first photograph asked if he could pose in my photograph of the building. How could I possibly say no?
Thursday, July 27th, 2017
“Our summer exhibition shines a light on how each of us connects with nature. We are displaying objects borrowed from members of the public that tell a story about their relationship with nature. Together they create a collective snapshot of how we think about nature in the 21st century and explore how the health of our planet is intricately bound up with the behaviours and values of the people who inhabit it.”
Another blog, another Wellcome Collection temporary exhibition review. I love Wellcome Collection, their interpretation and their collections, so I’m always straight there when a new temporary exhibition opens. And their new one was no different. A Museum of Modern Nature is Wellcome Collection’s newest temporary exhibition, as a second part to the successful and brilliant Making Nature. This time – Wellcome Collection are displaying objects borrowed from members of the public. The donor of the object shares their personal affection for their object, rather than the clinical scientific experience, with Wellcome Collection asking you to “help us create a different kind of nature – one that celebrates our everyday relationship with the world around us.”
Each object has a one minute soundbite, in which the donor describes the object in whatever way they feel is most appropriate, as well as a label that gives their first name and age. As with most Wellcome Collection curation, the description isn’t full of inaccessible scientific jargon. With A Museum of Modern Nature’s interpretation in particular, the donor giving the description of the object themselves adds humanity to the object, adding personal and intimate glimpse into how typical individuals relate to their objects.
Like the exhibitions predecessor, Making Nature: How We See Animals, this exhibition explores why we love nature, why we hold such affection for nature, rather than an academic quest for scientific knowledge. Because of this, Making Nature: How We See Animals really got me thinking about the ways museums interpret their collections when they are catalogued, curated, and consumed by audiences. Perhaps the reason some natural history museums aren’t as loved as they could/should be is because of that inaccessible scientific jargon. This is particularly the case for me and art galleries. This blog rarely features art gallery reviews, and if it does it’s usually talking about the overall theme, rather than individual pieces – the reason is often my own misunderstanding, or sometimes complete lack of understanding, of the labels. There must be a reason people feel intimidated by art galleries, I think that terminology filled labels can be one of, if not the main, reason.
Making Nature: How We See Animals turned this on it’s head. going back to the root human interaction with material culture, remembering that “I like this object because it looks like home” can be just as valid a reason to display it in an exhibition than the scientific or artistic importance. While of course there is an enormous need to collect and preserve objectively important objects, audiences to museums and galleries must also want to feel moved by objects in a subjectively emotional manner, and for me thats where Making Nature: How We See Animals got it so right.
A Museum of Modern Nature, free admission
Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE
22 June 2017 – 8 October 2017
Visitors can also get involved from home with Sharing Nature, Wellcome Collection are currently asking for online submissions, which changed themes every few weeks. All of the submissions appear on the website, then are voted on by the public, the ‘winners’ appear on the digital display in the exhibition itself.
Tuesday, June 27th, 2017
“Perry’s abiding interest in his audience informs his choice of universally human subjects. Working in a variety of traditional media such as ceramics, cast iron, bronze, printmaking and tapestry, Perry is best known for his ability to combine delicately crafted objects with scenes of contemporary life. His subject matter is drawn from his own childhood and life as a transvestite, as well as wider social issues ranging from class and politics to sex and religion.
Taking place during the Serpentine’s popular summer season, when the parks enjoy hugely increased local and international audiences, The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, tackles one of Perry’s central concerns: how contemporary art can best address a diverse cross section of society.”
The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever is the new addition to the Serpentine Gallery from Grayson Perry. In true Perry style, the exhibition explores popularity and art, masculinity, and the current cultural and political landscape of Britain. After a visit this month, I can see why it’s the most popular art exhibition ever.
I’ve not always known about Grayson Perry, and the importance of his work didn’t really occur to me until I saw his political tapestries on display at the Manchester Art Gallery a couple of years ago, and later at the Tate Modern more recently. Both tapestries, from what I can remember, were satirical maps of British society, highlighting both the divisions and similarities in groups. One of Grayson Perry’s infamous pots was also recently part of a LGBT trail at the Brighton Museum, which I blogged about last year. Pretty much, all of the times I’ve seen Grayson Perry’s work, it’s been part of a wider collection. Visiting The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever was an insight into Perry’s work, concentrated into a small space; as The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever, that small space was full of people.
The audience to the exhibition was as lively as the objects, full and loud, discussing the pieces in both their visual and contextual importance. Each piece had something to be said about it, accessible to everyone (or at least everyone in the room) conversations were brimming in the crowded space. Themes of Brexit, class, media, and immigration are always going to open up some debates, even amongst strangers.
As well as opening up debate, the pieces are also visually brilliant. One piece of tapestry, pottery or whichever medium Perry had chose sucks you in to it for a long time. Attention to detail, and making each intricate detail beautiful is what Perry does best. I think this is what is missed when a Grayson Perry piece is displayed as part of a larger collection of other artists. Visiting The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever, you know you’re going to see a Grayson Perry work and you know you’ll need to take the time to look at each pieces detail. When a Grayson Perry piece is part of a larger collection, it can get lost. A visit to the Tate takes hours already, spending the 5 minutes (at least) that you need to see one piece isn’t often spent.
The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever deserves to be The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever, it certainly felt like it when I was there.
Grayson Perry, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens London W2 3XA, open 8 Jun 2017 to 10 Sep 2017.
Friday, May 5th, 2017
“Our dynamic new galleries showcase thousands of objects from across our collections. They tell a huge range of stories from the army’s history. The galleries offer many perspectives. They address fundamental questions such as ‘Why do we have an army?’, examine the army’s relationship with society, and show how it has touched virtually every part of the world. They also reveal individual experiences of life as a soldier, including the conflicts they have fought in.”
“Do you want to join the army?” The title of this post is based off a question I heard a mother ask her daughter in the cafe of the National Army Museum, the daughter nodded while chomping on Pom Bears. Would her answer of been the same before visiting the museum?
National Army Museum still has that ‘new museum smell’, the galleries are still pristine, the walls are still that perfect white, and 99% of the interactives are still working. (Which, by museum standards, is incredible.) After its £23.75 million, three-year redevelopment, perhaps that is an expected given. The galleries are thematic, with a focus on personal stories and abstract ideas, rather than a simplistic chronological narrative that could’ve been developed. Split into Soldier, Army, Society, Battle, and Insight galleries, some of the lines are blurred between the spaces, with the overarching themes blending the galleries into the wider museum.
The soldier gallery explores recruitment, training, and daily life of the historical and contemporary soldier. As the museum isn’t displayed chronologically, the old juxtaposed with the contemporary. Why do people join the army, and could you, is the question this gallery asks of it’s visitors. Literally. When you walk in the gallery, above you is “Could you be a soldier” above you, with which entrance you walk in (yes/no) your answer, the same is then asked upon the exit. The gallery humanises the soldiers, showing their daily life as normal, often mundane, sometimes fun. One audience that was certainly considered in the gallery design was children. Climb in tanks, shooting games, marching practice interactives, if a child wanted to be a soldier, this would be the place to train.
Comparisons to Imperial War Museum are inevitable, and although I don’t want to make them, it’s so hard not to. I like to think of myself as a pacifist. While I have a broad understanding of the complex necessity of war, I also think there must be an alternative. Or, if war and the armed forces are necessary, ethics must always be considered and followed. I went in with that incredibly bias viewpoint, and probably (definitely) went searching for those messages throughout the museums narrative, and to a degree I found them. If I wasn’t searching for this opinion that mirrored my own to be reflected, would I have found it?
The Society gallery was always going to be my favourite, I’ve always viewed history and museums with a social, human perspective. How society affects the army and vice versa is explored and questioned throughout. This gallery explored how media is influenced, and influences, our perception of the army and how we interact with those questions. As a stark contrast to the floor below, with it’s gun shooting and marching practice games, this gallery asks how we think about children playing soldiers, asking “are we comfortable with children playing at killing?” citing predominantly video games like Call of Duty.
That said, while I think there is more that can be done, one thing the National Army Museum does do well is recognising its own controversy. While it was occasionally hidden behind a cool looking uniform that drew most visitors attention, there was an implicit and occasional explicit recognition of difficult histories, like British empire, and the ethics of army involvement in social issues, such as riots, the IRA incidents etc. On the walls are questions, with no space to answer them in the museum itself, but to take away from the museum to consider: “Are civilians a legitimate target?” “Should enemy soldiers be well treated?” “What is the fine line between questioning and torture?” Basically, asking, is all fair in love and war?
Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
“Explore the work of designer and artist Josef Frank (1885-1967) in the first-ever UK exhibition of his textiles. The Austrian-born architect moved to Sweden in 1933, where he developed his colourful brand of modernism, working with Estrid Ericson on furniture, glassware, lighting and interior design ideas. Together they redefined what is regarded as Swedish Modern. This exhibition in association with Millesgården, Stockholm highlights Frank’s vibrant fabric designs for Svenskt Tenn alongside a number of his previously unknown watercolours.”
I didn’t realise that the Fashion and Textile Museum only holds temporary exhibitions, I went to the museum quite blindly, expecting the stereotypical image of ‘fashion museum’ with mannequins scattered with 1920’s flapper dresses. However, between the 28th January to 7th May, the Fashion and Textile Museum has hosted the Joseph Frank: Patterns, Furniture and Painting exhibition, in association with Millesgården museum, celebrating the architect, artist, and designer. Curated by Dennis Nothdruft, the exhibition is the first ever dedicated to Franks work, and explores Josef Frank’s works within his social and religious background. Josef Frank was born an Austrian Jew, and fled to Stockholm with his Swedish wife in 1933, to escape growing Nazism. Beautifully and poignantly, the vibrancy of Franks style is in a direct opposite to his contemporary fears in the political and social climate, of course felt most heavily within his Jewish faith and heritage.
What struck me most about the exhibition was the accessibility. While I appreciate the beauty of the work, I went in with no prior knowledge of Frank’s work. By the time I’d left, I adored it. Throughout the exhibition were sofas, armchairs and seats all made in the fabric that the exhibition was there to celebrate. The textiles are displayed as both a grand and authoritative persona when displayed on the walls, while at the same time as accessible, physical and functional as part of the visitor experience. Viewing textiles, in a paid museum, can be an intimidating experience. I could’ve felt out of my depth. But, the curation by Dennis Nothdruft and the Fashion and Textile Museum make the visitor experience comfortable. While simple, the physical act of sitting on a comfortable chair, in my opinion, is not to be underestimated.
Not just textiles, the exhibition also displays Franks not often seen watercolours. As a man of many talents, he created, combining his love for art and architecture, with charming results. His ‘fantasy houses’ are the most impressive. Designed without the intention on ever being built, Frank’s thirteen fantasy houses took shape during 1947, inspired by modern architecture, often built with friends in mind who could live in them. This escapism into his fantasy estate, for me, summed up the exhibition, a story of Frank’s innovative and eccentric design in an era of political turmoil. The Josef Frank Patterns-Furniture-Painting three month exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum is an insight into Josef Frank’s take on modernist design, his growing understanding and processing of the horror in Jewish 1930’s Europe, and his beautiful botanical designs are one of a kind to see.
Tuesday, April 18th, 2017
Readers of this blog will know i know nothing about art, and luckily I’ve never set up a precedent of pretending to. So, this ‘review’ of the Guggenheim will, I guess, be a from a visitors perspective, not altered by any underlying biases of museum study.
Basically, I loved it.
Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, The Guggenheim is obviously stunning. The building is on three levels, centred around the Atrium, connected with curved walkways. Surrounded by the river, and the red and orange old buildings of Bilbao, the stone, glass and titanium building is an unmissable contrast. You know you’re in Bilbao if you can see the Guggenheim.
My favourite work, and probably most visitors favourite work, was Richard Serra’s installation The Matter of Time. It was fun, which is what art galleries often have the stereotype of not being. I sort of understood the meaning, it definitely was a unforgettable, dizzying feeling. More than that, it’s unusual finding a maze in an art gallery, people were enjoying it, whether they understood the context or not.
“The Matter of Time allows the viewer to perceive the evolution of the artist’s sculptural forms, from the relative simplicity of a double ellipse to the complexity of a spiral. The last two pieces of this sculpture are created from sections of toruses and spheres that produce different effects on the movement and perception of the viewer. These are unexpectedly transformed as the visitor walks through and around them, creating an unforgettable, dizzying feeling of space in motion. The entire room is part of the sculptural field.”
The Guggenheim is a tourists dream, myself included. The building, Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider sculpture, Maman, is an impressive photo opportunity. Almost 9 meters tall, Maman is a reflection of Bourgeois’ relationship with her mother, as a symbol of both strength and fragility in maternity. But, of course, it’s prime selfie background. Likewise Jeff Koons’ Puppy, the West Highland terrier carpeted in bedding plants sits outside guarding the entrance. The Tulips, also by Jeff Koons, the bouquet of balloon flowers, that are 2 meters tall and 5 meters across, lay on a balcony overlooking the river.
Bilbao is a beautiful city, and one I’d recommend to anyone for a city break. The Guggenheim is an accessible, fun, and exciting gallery. And has taught me that I’m drawn to large scale art..
Monday, March 27th, 2017
“Curated by members of the local LGBT+ community, this unique exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, exploring and celebrating those who campaigned and continue to campaign for equality for LGBT+ people. The exhibition details the development of an LGBT+ movement, showing the internal and external struggles, the different party political approaches to equality, and the social and historical context of the last sixty years of activism. This is the complex and compelling story of a long and often bumpy journey.”
Perhaps you’re not that into Youtube, fair enough, who really needs to know what lipstick Zoella likes recently. But, what is important, important enough to write a blog post about, is Youtube’s blocking of LGBTQ+ videos, while on their ‘restricted mode.’ (Read more about it on Buzzfeed here, where it’s much more eloquently described.)
Youtube’s blocking of LGBTQ+ content was met with mixed response. Some on the side of the fence of “it protects children from sexually explicit content” and others on the side of “HOW CAN THIS BE, blocking LGBTQ+ content is homophobic and dangerous.” Me? I think I’m still on the fence, with my leg dangling on the side of HOW CAN THIS BE. Although sitting on the fence is painful, uncomfortable, and only a temporary place to sit, literally or metaphorically.
So, this is a museum blog after all, back to museums. I visited the Never Going Underground exhibition at the Peoples History Museum this month, not long before finding out about the Youtube news. When the Youtube news came out, it got me thinking about the similarities between social media and museums, in terms of what they are to society. Now, perhaps I’m too millennial, but both, to me, are integral parts of society. My entire masters dissertation was about social media, so I definitely am too millennial. Social media, to those who use it, is a way to communicate, both individual stories and community narratives. Sound familiar? So are museums.
Peoples History Museum is always forward thinking, it’s the main reason it’s one of my favourite museums in the country. Never Going Underground is (unfortunately) brave. It is complex, enlightening, sad, joyful, humorous, dark, and curated expertly in perhaps a way no other museum could. I’m fascinated by how it was curated by volunteers from the local LGBT+ community, but definitely not surprised, who else could it be curated by? Never Going Underground presents the LGBTQ+ community, in my subjectively cis-het perspective, perfectly. People’s History Museum does what it does best, a timeline, a cracking timeline. Seeing the development from homosexuality being a crime, to it’s (ish) acceptance today, you can see how far we’ve come as a society, and how far we have left to go. It also portrays perfectly the complex vastness of the LGBTQ+ community, and doesn’t shy away from the racism and transphobia that exists within organisations such as Pride. But ultimately, Never Going Underground shows the resilience, strength, and vibrancy of the LGBTQ+ communities past, present and future. Also, how incredible are the family friendly bags, and when will they be available at all museums? Soon, I hope.
If museums, and social media broadly, but looking at Youtube in particular, blocks or hides these stories, what happens next? While I understand* the right to conservative beliefs, and the desire of those beliefs to ‘protect’ children from sexuality they are not mature enough to process until adulthood, blocking those stories is more than just ‘protecting children.’ If the excuse is there that it is protecting children, it inherently implies that it is a bad thing to need that protection from. If our museums don’t have LGBTQ+ displays, there is the implication that those stories are hidden for a reason, that they are bad stories, that should be hidden.
I wholeheartedly recommend following Queering Museums, particularly their brilliant podcast that has come out recently, on the matter. One day London will have a museum dedicated to LGBTQ+ stories, and I will be there on the opening weekend, with pride.
*by understand, I mean I can empathise with having views different to my own.
Monday, March 13th, 2017
The story of electricity is the story of life itself. From the structure of the atom to the functioning of our brains, this invisible yet vital force is intrinsic to human life. For centuries electricity has captivated inventors, scientists and artists alike, and in the modern era it has transformed our world.
What Wellcome Collection does well, both in it’s permanent and temporary exhibitions, is find that unique blend between science and society. As a scientific collection, it would perhaps be more straightforward to display the collection for what it is, science. Curatorial decisions however, pluck out the human stories, the social and the personal. This is no different for Wellcome Collection’s newest temporary exhibition, Electricity: The Spark of Life. Opened on the 23rd of February and running until the 25th of June, The Spark of Life is to be the blockbuster exhibition of Spring. (Sorry, Making Nature: How we see animals, you got beat here)
The exhibition is divided into three sections: Generation, Supply, and Consumption. Much like how the Making Nature: How We See Animals exhibition is, coming to think of it. The three sections Generation, Supply, and Consumption are separated by contemporary commissioned videos.
Generation, the first section is shrouded in darkness. Most objects centred around the 18th century, links to religion are throughout. As ever with the Wellcome Collection, there is a blend of art and objects that highlight the themes it represents. Themes of ethics, humanity, and enlightenment set up the rest of the exhibitions narrative. Most poignantly is the consideration of ethics. Frankenstein by Mary Shelly is a key bookmark in the storytelling of this era. As summarised in an exhibition label, Mary Shelly’s “keen interest in electricity and the reanimation experiments prompted by Galvinism is said to have been the central inspiration for her gothic novel, in which she describes the creature as infused with a “spark of being”” This narrative is displayed in three juxtaposed interpretations: a film of the 1931 Frankenstein playing, an edition of the book on display, as well as the Galvani experiment equipment. Blending objects from different disciplines is what Wellcome does best and it does it so well in Electricity: The Spark of Life.
Supply: Wiring The World is headed by X. Laevis (Spacelab) by John Gerrard (2017) which explores the Galvinist experiments in reanimation that have been considered before it. Moving into Consumption: the Silent Servant is headed by Electricity by Bill Morrison (2017) commissioned by the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, which again brought the human element to the exhibition, in that it explores the profound impact electricity has on our lives.
What impressed me most about Electricity: The Spark of Life, was the subtle curatorial decisions. Perhaps the gradually improving lighting is an obvious one, as much as I’d like to think I have an expertise in noticing these things. But, what was more subtle, was the gradual improving of the exhibition cases “quality.” Moving from wood, to brass, to steel exhibition design meant the exhibition itself moved with the content and theme.
The exhibition, like is often the case at Wellcome Collection, ends in the present and future of the story it tells. The last space considers climate change, energy consumption and what it means for our society to be so dependent upon energy for survival. What I assume to be, or what was definitely for me, the highlight piece of the exhibition. January 2017 Horoscope by Camille Henrot, is a newly commissioned piece, which considers the vast consumption the last section of the exhibition opens. Strobe lighting and animation is used to create a moving image of hands and a lighter setting an energy bill alight, as well as origami energy bill frogs jumping. The piece is striking visually, and it’s dark tone of the dangerous levels of consumption of energy end the Electricity: The Spark of Life perfectly.