High Tea

Today, we launched High Tea,  a new game to accompany our High Society exhibition. It’s a strategy game based on the British opium trade in the Chinese Pearl Delta that led up to the outbreak of the first Opium War in 1839.


How did we come to be creating this? In an early discussion about the web pages for High Society and what fun stuff we could do with them, someone suggested that the story of the British opium trade in China in the 19th century would make a good game. The idea stuck, and several months later we are launching a game exploring this rather unsavoury episode in British and Chinese history.

Since they did such a good job with our Quiz, we got Preloaded back on board to build it and picked the brains of Mike Jay, co-curator of High Society, for historical information we could weave into the game. We’re very pleased with the result, it’s beautiful and atmospheric, and slightly, er, addictive.

I have to confess, the truth about British behaviour in China and how we came to occupy Hong Kong came as a complete surprise to me. Not that I’d had a particularly rosy view of the British Empire, but still, this wasn’t something I was told about in school, or that I’ve seen explored much on TV or elsewhere. Others I’ve spoken to have been similarly undereducated on the subject.

So, our hope is that the game will pique the player’s curiosity about the subject, perhaps enlighten them a little, and shine a light on a grubby period of imperialism that I suspect many British, though perhaps not Chinese people, have forgotten all about.


Back in September we held an unusual event called Treats on Elasticity which was produced by Hester Aardse and Astrid van Baalen from the PARS Foundation in Amsterdam. They brought together an apparently disparate group of speakers and performers to explore the idea of elasticity within their own fields, and the results were surprising.

They ranged from the more literal interpretations of Nick White (quality director at Durex and condom expert) or artists Yoko Seyama and Lyndsey Housden who performed within their temporary structure of elastic and light, to interpretations of elasticity from within poetry, architecture, music and neuroscience. Composer Mayke Nas challenged ideas about the relationship between composer/conductor and the audience, and the latter performed her piece “Anyone can do it” – a title to be taken literally. The Wellcome Trust’s own Dan Glaser, an imaging neuroscientist by background, explored concepts of elasticity and plasticity in the brain. He described the way that researchers imaging the brain must “blow it up” when modelling it as if it were made of rubber, to smooth out the wrinkles and better interpret the images. He also described the elastic tension between our more primal selves and our modern sophistication, which can ping back at moments of stress to reveal our inner ape.

Jolyon Brewis, of Grimshaw-Architects, discussed the idea of the Elastic City. He spoke about elasticity in building structures, demonstrating with some alarming computer models of movement in structures such as the Eden Project, which he worked on. More flexible than it looks, apparently. He then touched on buildings designed to change in form and purpose, and elasticity in planning. We were also treated to some poetry from Fiona Sampson’s new collection, Rough Music.

I grabbed interviews with many of the speakers before and after the event, and tried to convey someone of the evening in the video, above. For more in this vein, take a look at the Findings on Elasticity book produced by PARS.

Seeing Myself See: Filming the event

It’s always a pleasure to cover an event with such a strong visual element; it makes the job of the filmmaker so much easier. Seeing Myself See had bright lights and bees, beautiful wooden instruments and crystallised bee flights – which not only looked great on camera, but were also clearly fascinating to the audience on the day. It was also very noisy, in the best possible way, so slightly less of a joy to edit it all together, but still fun.

The event was a very playful occasion that encouraged interaction as well as introspection, the idea being that people become more aware of the way in which they “see” the world. There was a particular focus on “sensory substitution”, replacing one sense with another. With the Seeing Instruments the colours of the user’s clothes were translated into music, whereas in the Mind Chair shapes are turned into touch.

My personal highlight, though, was the Bee Matrix. Whilst it definitely gave an insight into bee behaviour, what struck me most was the way in which it was developed in collaboration with primary school children and yet was producing genuinely novel scientific data – a potentially very interesting model for science education. It was also a success in keeping the bees contained, though I’m informed our thorough Events team had already appointed a “bee catcher” in the event of an escape when the box was opened to restock the “flowers”. Apparently they do stop flying in the dark so the lights are switched off during this process, but you can never bee too careful. (Sorry).

Watch the video to find out more, and don’t forget there are more on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to our channel to keep up to date with new films.

Balloon debate: the challenges of ageing

Balloon centenary at the Honorable Artillery Company, 1884 / Wellcome Images

Balloon centenary, 1884 / Wellcome Images

If you had a million pounds to tackle the challenges associated with ageing, what would you spend it on? This was the question posed to four distinguished speakers in the “Balloon Debate” on Ageing at Wellcome Collection. In a balloon debate each speaker in turn argues their point while sitting in an imaginary hot air balloon, hovering above the ground. At the end of each round the audience votes to turf one of them out of the balloon, Big Brother style. Then comes another round of speeches, followed by another vote and so on until just one speaker remains: the victor.

In our balloon were: Andrew Harrop of Age Concern and Help the Aged (soon to become Age UK); Andrea Gillies, author of Keeper, an account of caring for her mother in law who suffers from Alzheimer’s; Baroness Mary Warnock, noted philosopher and ethicist; and Professor Hugh Perry, a neuroscientist from the University of Southampton. The whole debate was provided with lively chairing by Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre.

First up was Andrea Gillies. She made a strong case for spending the money on art and music therapy, a measure that she claimed would bring immediate but also long term benefits to elderly people with dementia. She highlighted the intriguing work of Art Without Boundaries in the States, and Singing for the Brain in the UK. Art Without Boundaries have posted videos online which appear to demonstrate the successful application of art therapy in this way, stimulating even non-verbal patients into conversation along with the creation of quite beautiful artwork.

Second to speak was Andrew Harrop, who focused on the loneliness and isolation felt by many elderly people. Inspired by his recent experience of having a child, he proposed using the money to set up a new organisation called “Tea for three” which would pair new parents with single elderly people for visits. Though he found some fans in the audience, Mary Warnock, in her 80s herself, later said she wouldn’t actually be that pleased if someone came knocking on her door with baby in tow.  Andrew was the first to go, so perhaps many in the audience agreed with Mary, though Andrew did attract some positive comments when he wrote up his “Tea for Three” idea for a Guardian blog.

Hugh Perry was up next, proposing that his million be spent furthering the research done by his own team at Southampton on the links between infection and cognitive decline in dementia patients. He described this as an issue which has been ‘hidden in plain view’ – known anecdotally to carers and medical practitioners, but never properly studied and understood. Perry’s research over a six month period showed that patients who had suffered inflammatory disease below the neck had a significantly greater rate of cognitive decline than those who hadn’t. He had already begun to work on understanding the mechanism behind this effect, but called for more money to progress this work into something clinically useful.

Finally, Mary Warnock took to the podium having decided to split her potential pot of money into two halves. The first, she said, should be used to tackle the inexperience of many hospital nursing staff in dealing with patients that may come into hospital for something like a fall, but also suffer from symptoms of dementia. It seems that these patients are more likely to stay ill and in hospital for longer than patients without dementia, which may be down to the way they are treated (a subject which Andrea Gillies has been moved to write about herself). Mary suggested that setting up a distance learning scheme to educate nurses about dementia would be a good way to tackle this. The remaining half of the money she wanted to put towards scientific research into dementia, an area which she claimed was massively underfunded.

Mary was actually the second to go, so this good-natured but lively debate ended with the audience asking a wide range of questions to both Andrea and Hugh, the last two standing. Finally, though, a decision had to be made and a close vote won it for Andrea.

I interviewed each of the speakers on camera beforehand to hear more about their proposals and these videos are now up on our website for viewing. I also canvassed the views of the audience to find out how they might spend £1m to tackle the problems associated with ageing, and to find out what they thought of the debate. If you missed the chance to contribute to this film on the night, do let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Martha Henson is a Multimedia Editor at the Wellcome Trust