Being Human, Wellcome Collection, London - Museums Association

Being Human, Wellcome Collection, London

This new permanent exhibition explores what it means to be human through our relationships with others and the environment
Medicine Openings
Judit Agui
Being Human, Wellcome Collection, London – Courtesy Wellcome Collection

Being Human, the newly opened permanent exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, examines identity and health through a contemporary lens in a rapidly changing world. 


The display takes the place of Medicine Now, which explored the history of science and medicine since 1936. Being Human comes at a critical time of activism and political campaigns that demand a new democratisation of research and scientific knowledge. With organisations such as Extinction Rebellion advocating that citizens and politicians listen to scientists on the climate crisis, it seems ever more crucial to understand and question any facts we’re fed. 
As a reflection of this changing landscape, Being Human explores genetics, mental health, infection and environmental breakdown, which combine to offer visitors the opportunity to understand the nuanced complexities and politics of scientific research. 
Designed by the Turner Prize-winning arts and architecture collective Assemble, the gallery has a welcoming wood aesthetic, which clashes with the typically sterile scientific appearance of research institutions and galleries. The gallery space is embellished with colourful cross-laminated timber, a material normally used for construction, which echoes the DIY aesthetic of the collective.
[caption id="attachment_10085" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Being Human, Wellcome Collection, London. Courtesy Wellcome Collection[/caption]
Assemble is a multi-disciplinary collective with a collaborative approach and social focus. Most of its projects are developed in conjunction with local residents or users of the spaces they build. It designed the Being Human gallery in consultation with disability groups, ensuring equal opportunities for everyone to experience the exhibition. The captions include braille and tactile map interpretations of some works. 
Gene genie 
The first section visitors encounter is Genetics, which discusses current techniques and how we inherit traits. Audiences can interact with the tactile versions of genetically inherited traits through Medical Heirlooms by Tasmin van Essen, a series of ceramic vessels inspired by antique apothecary jars.
Visitors can also observe a Crispr gene-editing kit, available to purchase online, and a series of works by Heather Dewey-Hagborg that have been developed from human DNA collected in New York. 
Accompanying these works is a tank of zebrafish, because, as the displays reveal, humans share 70% of their DNA with these fish – a living example of the revelations that genetic research can bring. 
An essential part of the human condition is understanding our minds and bodies. The exhibition aims to challenge our idea of normality, highlighting indigenous narratives and disability issues. Works by the artists Dolly Sen and Katherine Araniello use humour to question society’s perception around mental-health treatment and disability through a series of moving images and hacked objects.
The exhibition also includes a Friendship Bench, which reflects an innovative project in Zimbabwe, which has been developed by the Centre for Global Mental Health. These benches have been installed across Africa as “alternative mental health clinics”. 
The premise is that local grandmothers – community volunteers with no medical experience – can have healing conversations with people in distress. This innovative solution is key in remote villages where emergency healthcare access is sometimes unavailable. 
Visitors are also able to explore the evolution of the human body through a display of donated prosthetics that raise questions about the future of body modifications and robotics. 
The next section looks at infection, and the Wellcome Collection has installed a jukebox that plays songs about epidemics around the world. Indeed, it’s the relationship to other human bodies that is the core of disease transmission. Infection, of course, can affect our relationships with others, so the exhibition addresses the stigma surrounding HIV through a series of small sculptures by Basse Stittgen made from HIV-positive blood. 
Another imaginative display looks at Ebola victims. The Wellcome Collection has constructed the experience of a patient during their infection. Being treated by faceless professionals in protective suits and masks can be traumatic. 
Mary Beth Heffernan’s portraits show Ebola healthcare professionals dressed in all their gear, faces concealed but with photographs of their faces stuck on to their overalls. The work has come out of Heffernan’s intervention, produced during the West African epidemic of the disease, to humanise care workers by showing patients the faces of those looking after them. 
Climate in crisis
The final section of Being Human explores our relationship with the environment and how its collapse will affect society. This section is introduced with the artist group Superflex’s reflection on consumption, capitalism and the food crisis. During its short film, Flooded McDonald’s, Superflex portrays the US fast-food giant being destroyed by the force of nature. The video highlights just how powerless humanity really is. 
The artist Yinka Shonibare’s newly commissioned Refugee Astronaut examines the future of humans and their relationship with the land. This work presents an interesting reverse of our current understanding of space exploration. It proposes that we might not be looking for other planets driven by scientific curiosity, but as a necessity to escape an uninhabitable world.
As the artist says in an article published in the Stories section of the Wellcome website: “With environmental degradation, we may not have alternative places to go, we may just have to wear astronaut suits, because basically we’ve messed it all up.”
Other works include a replica of the smell of extinct flowers and photographs portraying past environmental disasters. Frustratingly, the exhibition fails to represent the current social activism around the climate crisis, so having read about the effects of environmental breakdown, we are left with no hope. I suspect many visitors will leave feeling a bit glum. 
But Being Human provides an innovative glimpse into scientific research and how science and technology are changing society. The exhibition takes an exciting multisensory approach to permanent displays and is mindful of visitors’ needs, taking into account different types of learning and mobility. Being Human also gives voice to previously underrepresented groups and cultures in an exciting attempt to explore changing perspectives in science. 
As Clare Barlow, the curator of the show, says: “Our understanding of what it means to be human is being transformed not only by new research, but also by the voices of those with diverse identities and experience. Bringing together these objects reveals how we are all different, we are all valuable and we are all connected.”
Judit Agui is a production assistant at Science Gallery London
Project data
Main funder
Wellcome Collection
Build and exhibition fitout
Realm Projects
Graphic design
Graphic production
Bookworks; Erin Bradley-Scott; Jochen Holz; Rivermade
DHA Designs
Special services
Aquarium Connections; Braile Translations; Remark; RNIB; Tactile Studios; VocalEyes

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