An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition was the title for a recent exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. It presented a carefully curated mix of objects from Henry Wellcome’s extraordinary collection in the museum. The exhibition was a fantastic example of how to present a collection in an inspiring and novel way.
The Wellcome Collection explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future. It was founded by Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) who was a pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector. His collection is one of the world’ s most impressive relating to medicine and health through the ages.
How to present such a historical and vast collection for today’s audience in an interesting and appealing way?
It is based on the alphabets but not in the most obvious way. Each letter is linked to a selected random theme e.g. O = ‘Obsolete knowledge’ with case examples.
The examples are represented by real life objects from the collection (medical artefacts, paintings, photographs and sculptures, and artworks).
Case example of Obsolete Knowledge is phrenological heads. It is focused on measurements of the human skull, based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules. It was very popular in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 – 1840.
A person’s capacity for a given personality trait could be determined simply by measuring the area of the skull that overlies the corresponding area of the brain.
Half of the space presented the collection, while the other half encouraged visitors to participate by different kinds of contributions and share their experiences.
Visitors were asked to share their cityscapes via instagram and twitter and display them opposite a manuscript of the Nuremberg Chronicle, opened at an illustrated view of the medieval urban landscape (U for Urban Living). Visitors posted acts of kindness, across from the dystopian Eden of The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted after Bosch (D for Delight). An illustrator sketched out visitors’ accidents and near misses in the spirit of displayed ex-voto paintings to the saints (A for Acts of Faith) and fears were left behind in the gallery next to our 17th century etching of De Monstris and a Nicobar Island figure used to ward off evil spirits (F for Fears).