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Outside the Lab Training and education, Profession

The Joy of Being Human

Stranger Visions, Heather Sewey - Hagborg, 2012 - 2013, © Heather Sewey - Hagborg. Courtesy Wellcome Collection

Before me is a human head. Well, a facsimile of one. It’s a 3D-printed “portrait” of an imaginary person, with the physical features filled in by use of genetic markers gleaned from chewed gum, used cigarette butts, and pieces of hair. The head is strange looking, firmly entrenched in the deepest trough of the uncanny valley. The Frankenstein assembly of random pieces of DNA isn’t so much an exercise in genetic research, but in scientific art. In fact, the head’s home – The Wellcome Collection – is an institution where art and science become one.

Despite being formed from the extensive library of medical objects belonging to Henry Solomon Wellcome, the Wellcome Collection is decisively contemporary. Much of the Collection battles with its originator’s penchant for philanthropy and colonialism – a common thread through much of modern medical history – and it has an unyielding approach to art accessibility, whether through braille descriptions, magnifiers, or even free tours presented in sign language.

Behind me is the rest of Being Human, Wellcome’s only permanent exhibition. According to a member of staff, it combines “science and medicine research with everything human.” It’s a pithy explanation, but it doesn’t really put across how strange and interesting the various medical tools, art pieces, and yes, human heads, look within the context of a curated gallery. Clearly that’s part of the charm, and the goal is to educate the general public on health and science. To that end, the museum has clearly succeeded, with every area in the multi-storey public space packed with people. Years after Being Human debuted in 2019, it still draws in crowds.

There are four sections to the exhibit, but two will pique interest to those in the diagnostic lab: Genetics and Infection. The genetics section is somewhat small, and is understandably heavy on the tech side of things; a short film plays about a geneticist who becomes obsessed with the donor of a sample, a consumer-grade CRISPR kit sits behind glass. 

A series of ceramics can also be seen here, and they wouldn’t look amiss in a standard art gallery. The textured, spotty pottery is designed to represent a series of conditions affected by genetics: cancer, osteoporosis, and, appropriately, acne. There’s not much deeper introspection on a scientific level, bar the ethical side of harvesting genetic data. In fact, much of the genetics section comes across more disturbing and dystopian than it does inspiring. I wonder if more recent additions could focus on the positive, life-changing impacts of genetic research, like those of London’s very own Great Ormond Street Hospital – which is a brisk nine-minute walk from the Collection.

Meanwhile, at the Infection quarter, visitors can see some of the larger – and more tactile – pieces. This portion feels especially poignant with infectious disease dominating mainstream conversation over the last few years, and visitors seemed to be noticeably magnetized to it. Stepping in, one can see the appeal: an interactive jukebox filled with songs centered on disease; a mannequin dressed in PPE; objects made from plasticized HIV-positive blood. It’s here where Being Human feels most poignant – where the history of stigma against disease is laid bare and effortlessly presents itself as art worth looking at.

Of course, the other portions of the exhibit are interesting in their own right. In Environmental Breakdown I can see the exhibit’s de facto mascot, a towering “refugee astronaut” wearing a mixture of post-apocalyptic gear – presumably wandering the wasteland of some future planet Earth. On the other hand, Minds and Bodies is probably what most may expect to see in a more typical contemporary art display, with its bold original pieces that focus on identity, queerness, and disability. While passionate, it’s here where the scientific scaffolding behind the pieces are perhaps at their most flimsy.

Those looking for an expert look into the science of disease and health will probably not find much inside Being Human, though Wellcome Collection’s seasonal exhibitions can offer a surprising level of detail, historically speaking. That said, the Collection is clearly more interested in sparking conversations about health in a breathtakingly accessible fashion. For those after unadulterated knowledge, head up to the library on the fourth floor. For those wishing to experience new ways to engage with science, health, and art, check out Being Human – you’ll be received with a warm welcome.

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About the Author
George Francis Lee

Deputy Editor, The Pathologist

Interested in how disease interacts with our world. Writing stories covering subjects like politics, society, and climate change.

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