05/12/2019

WELLCOME COLLECTION | LONDON

I was eager to visit Wellcome Collection on our recent trip to London. As a death aficionado with a chronic illness, a museum and library centred on exploring health sounded like the ideal place to spend a few hours of exploration. Spoiler alert: it was astounding.


Wellcome Collection is part of the Wellcome Trust, founded by Henry Wellcome upon his death to further his goal of improving health. Henry Wellcome began a pharmaceutical company in 1880, which then expanded to groundbreaking research, improving medicine through his own laboratories and by providing funding. The Wellcome Trust now continues this fantastic work supporting essential research, tackling global health challenges, engaging communities, and campaigning to improve science. Henry Wellcome's fascination with art and science relating to healing across history and culture led to him acquiring an extensive collection of medical paraphernalia, some of which is now on display at Wellcome Collection (and I'm incredibly envious of it!).


Play Well
Play Well explores the role of play in development, and the development of play. Outlining the founding of kindergartens through Fröbel's 'gifts' and his recognition of children having varied needs, Play Well gives insight into the influence early educational experience has upon adulthood and the ideas that have underpinned progression into modern early years practise. Play Well further discusses the need for play to be culturally relevant, how 'play labs' achieve this to give displaced children a sense of security in turbulent situations, and how important play is as a tool for children to process trauma. 
This exhibition shows that play is not just childhood frivolity, but a must for healthy development. It then asks us if modern play is truly meeting childrens' needs. Play Well illustrates how play is becoming more inclusive and less entrenched with beauty standards and gender roles, and digital play is giving children wider social opportunities, however greater restrictions and decreasing levels of risk in play may hinder the exploration and freedom of expression that children need to flourish. 
It provided an enchanting look at the simple act of playing through a lens of art, psychology, and anthropology, and a reminder that an act we can take for granted is actually a rich and vital part of life. 


Misbehaving Bodies
Misbehaving Bodies features work by Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery, examining how illness can dramatically shift our sense of identity. Misbehaving Bodies features soft pink, cosy nooks in which to view Ashery's Revisiting Genesisa 12 part series that explores chronic illness, seeking treatment as part of a marginalised community, and death in the context of the modern, digital world. 
Meanwhile, Spence's work illuminates her thoughts regarding her breast cancer diagnosis, womanhood, and death. Her work, predominantly photographic, forms a powerful look at her experiences. It illustrates her worries about letting go of responsibilities to focus on her health, her feelings of infantalisation by medical professionals, her loss and reclamation of agency, and the reasons behind her difficult choice to pursue holistic treatment options. 
This exhibition was poignant and emotive, forming a powerful reclamation of conversation about health, which is so often dominated by the healthy. Pieces like 'A Picture of Health?', Phototherapy, and Jo Spence's diary display with a raw openness the complex emotions and thoughts that ill health can bring. 

Being Human
Being Human is exactly what it says on the tin - an exhibition about being human in the modern age. 'Refugee Astronaut', 'Flooded McDonald's', and 'The World Under Pressure' gaze into the future of climate breakdown, and ask questions about how humanity will continue under increasing environmental devastation. Meanwhile, 'Water is Life' is a powerful reminder of the present day global battle against the decimation of Earth at the hands of the privileged. 
Being Human challenges perspectives on illness with pieces such as 'Eleven', 'Dignity', and 'PPE Portrait Project', which defiantly tackle the patholagisation of illness and reclaim the humanity behind the diagnosis. Whilst many pieces look at survival and illness, the ultimate theme of Being Human is to celebrate the body in every form. 'Medical Heirlooms' reminds us that our inherited 'flaws' are what make us unique and beautiful, whilst other pieces like '5318008' take a more playful tone, noting our close relationship with bacteria with a surprising homage to breast milk. 
Being Human is a wonderful dive into what it means to exist in a human body in 2019, noting our many battles for survival alongside joyful celebrations of us as we are. 

Medicine Man
Medicine Man is a peek into some of the weird and wonderful items in Henry Wellcome's collection of medical and health paraphernalia in an exhibition that takes us from birth to death. Every piece in this collection is utterly fascinating. From amputation saws to Chinese erotic dolls, Medicine Man provides an enchanting look at life through the ages and across cultures. Medicine Man looks at not only the sterile medical, but the spiritual. Anatomical figures, medical teaching devices, and prosthetics are features alongside memento mori pieces, shrines, and good luck charms, showing that there is more to health than the physical. 
There are several items from people of note, such as Charles Darwin's walking canes, Florence Nightingale's moccasins, and King George III's hair. Medicine Man also shows some particularly poignant pieces from Wellcome's collection, such as a used guillotine blade, a death mask, and mummified human remains. 
Medicine Man is a powerful glimpse at a fraction of the vast global history of medicine and health. It shows us how far our understanding of health has grown across time, yet how similar our thoughts and desires have remained.  

Wellcome Collection was a true haven to me. They celebrate every human, and as a chronically ill person, I felt uplifted and important, not just through the beautiful exhibitions, but through their care and attention to accessibility. They have fantastically designed, gender neutral toilets, use dynamic, empowering disability symbols across the building, and have large font, braille, and audio available throughout exhibits. It was so empowering to visit a place that felt welcoming to everyone. 

Whilst we didn't have time to visit the library, the shop was full of fantastic books and unique gifts like a cat phrenology head (yes, I bought it), and cuddly toy diseases. I could have spent hours looking through the fabulous books, so I very much hope to visit the library next time.

Wellcome Collection made my history, psychology, and death loving self incredibly happy, and I only wish I lived close enough to visit more often. It was filled with everything I find fascinating about existing as a human, and I cannot recommend visiting enough. 

  



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