I’m spoiled for museums in London, but I never fail to stop at The Wellcome Collection across the street from Euston Station. Born in a log cabin on the Wisconsin frontier, Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) made his money as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. Like many well-heeled Victorians, Wellcome was an inveterate collector. In his case, by the 1930s, his collection of books and artifacts specific to the art and science of healing totalled about 1.5 million objects.
The second floor of the Wellcome Collection in London holds a fascinating fraction of that collection. The first floor is devoted to changing/topical exhibits that link illness, health, science and social science. Quoting from the current exhibit catalog, Superhuman: Exploring Human Enhancement from 600 BCE to 2050, “The Wellcome Collection is a free destination for the incurably curious devoted to exploring the links between life, medicine and art.” I love the linkages. And the disconnects.
Some museums are for looking. The Wellcome is for wondering. Nothing is cut-and-dried. If you are looking for absolutes, The Wellcome is not for you. Just as you think that you have an answer, you move on to the next display, and that display has you approaching the topic from another angle. The audio, the video, the static and interactive exhibits shift the sands beneath your feet.
The curators set the tone with the very first display: a statue of Icarus on loan from the British Museum. If you remember, the story of Icarus comes from Greek mythology. Icarus wanted to fly away from Crete, so Daedalus, his father, made him wings of feathers and wax. Despite his father’s warning that he not fly too close to the sun, Icarus flew higher. The wax melted and Icarus fell to Earth where he drowned in the sea. The lesson: man should be wary of over-reaching… of hubris.
Have we, the exhibit asks, flown too high in our attempts at human enhancement?
Is human enhancement a blessing or a curse? Emily Sargent, curator of the Superhuman exhibition. writes in the catalog: “Initial fears that enhancement might compromise our core values are dispelled as we unravel the subject and face the possibility that it is our very desire to improve ourselves that makes us human.”
I take Sargent’s point, but looking at the articles in the second display case, I do wonder if in some cases we are “compromising core values.” The second display case includes the following items: spectacles, 1801; an ivory dildo in the form of an erect penis complete with a contrivance for stimulating ejaculation, 1701; Viagra, 1996; a contraceptive implant; an acoustic headband with ear trumpets, 1901; cochlear implants, 2011; 9-inch heels / 4-inch platform shoes designed by Vivienne Westwood, 1999; roller skates, 1863; and an iPhone.
I’ll leave the discussion of the dildo to my readers, but the iPhone… Whatever happened to face time? I leave it there – you already know everything I want to say without my saying it.
One of my favorite displays was a 2001 video filmed in Afghanistan by Mohsem Makhmalbaaf. By 2001 the Soviets had thrown in the towel, but they left behind an estimated ten million landmines which have taken their toll. In the opening scene, we see 25 or so amputees on crutches. They are all looking to the sky. They are running – between each planting of their crutches, they are taking two steps with their good leg. And then the camera pans skyward, and you see artificial limbs parachuting down. Every amputee has his eyes on the limbs. Clearly these donated legs are a blessing.
In the next scene, a man is looking for a prosthesis for his wife. The doctor gives him an artificial leg. The man complains that his wife’s foot is smaller – her leg more slender. To assure a good fit, the husband has brought the shoe that is wife wore at their wedding. He shows the doctor his wife’s shoe and argues that the prosthesis on-offer is for a man, not a woman.
The doctor argues that the wife will need a sturdy leg. The husband counters that it is not a woman’s leg. And there you have it. The doctor is talking about functionality; the husband is talking about aesthetics. His idealized notion of feminity is getting in the way. It is a good case of form over function. What would you have? No leg or an ugly leg?
Coming on the heels of the 2012 Paralympics, the Superhuman Exhibition couldn’t be more timely. If you are in London, see the exhibit. You will leave with lots of food for thought. And splurge a pound on the catalog. Six, university experts on Science, Ethics and Innovation weigh in on the topic. Fascinating!
Will we fly too close to the sun? Only time will tell.