Published  19/08/2014

An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition

An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition

This whimsical interactive exhibition from the Wellcome Collection, with its weird and wonderful objects, guides us through an alphabetical history of medicine, says Kate Tiernan

Wellcome Collection, London
24 June – 12 October 2014

The Wellcome Collection’s An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition is a fascinating look at some of Henry Wellcome’s more unusual objects. Medical artefacts, paintings, photographs, sculptures and some contemporary artworks take you on a humorous and interactive journey through medical history, where you can be both contributor and contemplator. Curator Danielle Olsen has put together a playful exhibition of curiosities, a real joy in a small space.

As you arrive, you are encouraged to place a green dot on a map to show where you are visiting from. Each letter of the alphabet is themed: B is for Birthdays, S is for Skin art, Y is for Yawning, and so on. H is for Heredity, where visitors have recorded their heights with an array of coloured pencil marks on the wall, and a large bookshelf contains more than 100 volumes into which have been transcribed 3.4 billion units of DNA code.

When you get to M, there is a vitrine entitled Mental Faculties containing a large book from 1621 by Robert Fludd, an English physician, author and mystical philosopher. He drew his ideas from many sources including the Old Testament, the Jewish Kabbalah, alchemy and astrology, and describes four realms of perception – sensual, intellectual, imaginable and sensible.

O is for Obsolete knowledge, with an array of 18th-century objects including Inuit snow goggles, a peg leg, an artificial nose and a false eye. Here I was fortunate enough to catch the trolley of curiosities: an expert explaining phantom-limb syndrome.

On the opposite wall Philosophy is demonstrated with food for thought, an invitation to take a fortune cookie to open on leaving the exhibition. R is for Resourcefulness, where visitors scribble down what they think it means, pinning their definitions to a board for all to read. Soundbites of wisdom include: “insight, research, intelligent”, “knowing who to call”, “doing what you can with what you’ve got” and “sharing”.

As you near the end of the alphabet, U for UrbanLiving includes rows and rows of photographs of packed trains and pavements. Visitors can post their own examples on Twitter at #HumanSardines.

This exhibition engages with our head, heart, and hands. Contribute and track this allegorical alphabet at #HumanCondition.


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