The Wellcome Collection, Part I

One surprise visit that I took while in London was to the Wellcome Collection.

This institution describes itself as “The free museum and library for the incurably curious” and I did find many aspects of it to be delightful. That said, I have some significant reservations about their permanent collection, which I will be addressing in my next blog post.

What’s the Wellcome Collection?

The Wellcome Collection was founded by the Wellcome Trust. Behind The Gates Foundation, Novo Nordisk and IKEA’s INGKA Foundation, it has the 4th largest charitable endowment in the world. This money originates in the world of pharmaceuticals, and the trust’s aim is to “achieve extraordinary improvements in health by supporting the brightest minds”, it also funds research into the sciences. (Thank you Wikipedia for helping me find this info!)


The Wellcome Collection has both a permanent collection and offers rotating exhibits. They offer a uniquely themed platform for shows and artists, and hence can showcase diverse works concurrently. For instance, in early July, the ground floor held “Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic” which presented a diverse collection of art, objects, ephemera and videos related to the trade of magicians. While, just upstairs, Misbehaving Bodies: Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery, examined the nature of our relationship to our bodies and illness.

I found the Misbehaving Bodies to be aptly named and relevant to the mission of the Wellcome Collection as well as of interest to the public (as was the magic exhibition below).

The question of how illness shapes our identities is relevant for so many, and I enjoy when exhibitions involve the public. This inclusion helps the audience to recognize that their experience has meaning and is an important part of the artist’s and curator’s process as well. One has to decide for whom the art is being made, and for what reason it is being shown.

Jo Spence, part of her “A Final Project” series. The image is a composite photograph of a woman floating (as if swimming) in a field

The personal and womb-like feel of some of the spaces was clearly intentional. Here is one of Ashery’s multiple video installations. Draped ceiling to floor in fabrics, with a soft rug and cushions, multiple pods allowed visitors to stop and attend to the work on screen in a unique space.

Alas, I did find myself more drawn to the still images than to the videos, and I regret that I didn’t have time to sit and watch the works on screen.

Spence’s pieces were so personal that it was hard not to want to look at all of it immediately. I found the work, and particularly her making sense of her breast cancer poignant and touching, as she confronted questions and worked through deeply personal aspects of her inner self.

The show read as a scrapbook: items pinned together; photographs, articles, hand-scrawled questions. Much of the items were on construction paper. The handmade nature of the show, pinned to the walls, gives it an intimate appeal that it wouldn’t have in a traditional gallery space or museum.

Spence’s work evolved even in its similar iterations. And, whether she uses the word “responsibility” more frequently than any other or whether that’s the only world I chose to photograph (psychologists, have a field day!), is up to you to decide.

Spence’s work in this show presents a woman who was questioning the concept of identity as it related to her, as a person, as a woman, and as a physical being. She had a body that had betrayed her in many ways (by developing cancer, and then, later, leukemia). Yet, she had her own unique way of confronting it.

Often, it does seem that cancer (or really, any serious chronic disease or terminal illness) can end up defining an individual in a way that can take over a much richer life. Spence fought against letting a diagnosis overtake her. I would posit that she wrested meaning from her suffering by making it public, and in doing so, reclaimed her role as an artist, photographer, and chronicler of experience. It was a thought provoking experience to take that journey with her.

Jo Spence The Final Project, (1991-1992). Collaboration with Terry Dennett 
Photo: Copyright the Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery.

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