The power of posture

This year’s Bloomsbury Festival’s theme is language. Find out more about our upcoming weekend of hands-on creative activities and thoughtful conversations exploring how we communicate through posture, gesture and facial expression, as Nelly Ekström explores the power of posture.

L0031951 Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images BELL, Sir Charles {1774-1842} Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of expression in painting, London: Longman, 1806. Page 142 - Wonder / Fear / Astonishment. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

An overt example of body language: wonder, fear, or astonishment from ‘Essays on the anatomy of expression in painting’.

I’ve been paying extra attention to the people around me lately. Noticing the way they stand; how they hold their heads and move their hands. Our bodies are constantly sending out information about what we are thinking and feeling; our brains are equally busy interpreting those messages from other people.

Most of this happens on a subconscious level and we react and adapt without being aware of what’s happening or why. After looking into a lot of research about body language, I can’t help but analyse the raised eyebrows, crossed legs or hands on hips I see around me. I’m much more aware of my own body language: my body can communicate how I’m feeling even when I’m not necessarily aware of those feelings myself.

The theme of Bloomsbury Festival 2016 is language. Wellcome Collection will offer a series of talks, events and interactive activities to get involved in over that weekend focussing specifically on body language at our Speaking with your body weekend.

Only about 7% of what we communicate to one another comes from the meaning of the actual words we say. 38% is para-verbal communication, which is everything else you do with your voice: your accent, pitch, how fast you talk and any other sound you make like smacking, clicking, giggling or sighs. The remaining 55% is communicated through how you move and position your body and face.

Some parts of your body are more communicative and expressive than others. We pay most attention to the face in our interactions with others. Join Dr Eva Krumhuber from University College London to investigate how our faces express emotion and participate in an experiment to see if you can tell a genuine smile from a faked one.

  L0071892 p. 151, 24 hand gestures, from Chirologia... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Chirologia: or the naturall language of the hand. Composed of the speaking motions, and discoursing gestures thereof. Whereunto is added Chironomia: or, the art of manuall rhetoricke. Consisting of the naturall expressions, digested by art in the hand, as the chiefest instrument of eloquence, by historicall manifesto's, exemplified out of the authentique registers of common life, and civill conversation / ...By J. B. Gent. Philochirosophus 1644 Chirologia: or the naturall language of the hand. Composed of the speaking motions, and discoursing gestures thereof. Whereunto is added Chironomia: or, the art of manuall rhetoricke. Consisting of the naturall expressions, digested by art in the hand, as the chiefest instrument of eloquence, by historicall manifesto's, exemplified out of the authentique registers of common life, and civill conversation / J. B. Published: 1644.  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Chirologia: or the natural language of the hand.

We also pay attention to people’s hands when they talk. Some hand gestures have become so charged that they’ve become symbols, carrying a meaning far beyond what they communicate in the moment. Artist Isobel Manning will be exploring this subject in ‘Creative Hands’, were you’ll be given the opportunity to participate and sculpt your own gesturing hand.

Hands can also be used for communication in a very conscious and straightforward way, like in sign language. Translator and tutor Russell Aldersson will be leading British Sign Language taster sessions where you learn the basics of BSL. There will also be a BSL tour of the Medicine Man gallery, led by deaf historian John Wilson, which will be accompanied by English voiceover.

Your body language is a mixture of many different kinds of human physical behaviour. It communicates who you are to the world around you. It’s a product of who you are as an individual and the time and place you live in. But basic body language is something you share with every living human in the world, and with a large part of the animal kingdom as well. Studies have even shown that people who were born blind use the same kind of basic body language, which proves that this basic body language is not constructed socially or culturally, but something that is written into the innate core of human behaviour.

During the Speaking with your body weekend you can help re-animate a film from Wellcome’s archive of moving images, featuring a vast range of body language, both subtle and not so subtle. Join Dan Brown from Mash Cinema to colour and collage your own individual frames, and witness the augmented film take shape over the weekend. See the video below for a taste of Dan’s previous work with us.

If you feel comfortable and fairly in control of a given situation, you are likely to stand up straight, let your arms fall to your sides and stand with your legs a bit apart. You can relax; you don’t feel the need to protect yourself and you can take up as much space as you need. If you are feeling insecure you tend to do the opposite: you protect the soft and sensitive areas of your body by crossing arms and legs, hunching your back, bending your chin down or covering your neck with your hands.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Illustration of cat terrified at a dog from Chapter V Special Expressions of Animals 1872 The expression of the emotions in man and animals / Charles Darwin Published: 1872. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Illustration of cat terrified at a dog from Darwin’s ‘The expression of the emotions in man and animals’.

If you are feeling threatened and insecure you shrink down and take up as little space as possible. When you get aggressive and defensive, you want –subconsciously- to show how big and strong we are, to convince everyone around that you are dominant. This kind of behaviour can be seen in the animal kingdom; think about cats arching their backs when they feel threatened or tucking their tails between their legs when they’re submissive.

Body language as a field of research is developing rapidly. For the last ten years or so there has been an emerging field in psychology called ’embodied cognition’. Looking back, the traditional approach to body language in cognitive science was based on the idea that whatever happened inside the brain would eventually extend out to the rest of the body and affect its behaviour. Research into embodied cognition has established that what was believed to be a one-way communication between body and brain is in fact a two-way communication.

When your body language changes, your brain gets a message that something has changed and adapts by sending out the hormones and chemicals that will be most functional in this new situation.

How your body language affects your own body and brain, and how that can change the way you think and feel, is the subject of my own contribution to the program. If you want to know more about this, and find out if the superwoman pose can give you a better start to the day, join me for the discussion The Power of Posture.


The Speaking with your body weekend takes place at Wellcome Collection 22 – 23 October 2016.

Nelly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Creative Merchandise: Prototyping

We’re a few weeks into RawMinds: Creative Merchandise, our current RawMinds project for young people aged 14-19 to creatively engage with Wellcome Collection. Young people are working together with professionals from design and retail to create a range of new products for our shop. We introduced the project in a previous post and now Product Design course leader Wyn tells about recently hosting the young people at Middlesex University.

We were privileged to work with the RawMinds group from Wellcome Collection. A talented bunch of twelve young people had been working on product ideas for Wellcome Collection’s shop. They’d come up with fantastic, clever, insightful and commercial proposals that really brought Wellcome Collection’s ideals and content to life.

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Introducing RawMinds: Creative Merchandise

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about RawMinds: Creative Merchandise, our current RawMinds project for young people aged 14-19 to creatively engage with Wellcome Collection. Over the next two months, a group of selected young people from across London will be working together with professionals from the worlds of design and retail to create a small range of new products for our shop. Freelance facilitator Tiff explains.

The first session of this project started amongst the throng and excitement of a very busy Wellcome Collection on Saturday 16 January. With all the planning in place, Catherine Ayres (Youth Programmes Officer) and I welcomed 13 participants into the Studio at Wellcome Collection to introduce ourselves and set the brief for small teams to produce both a 3D and graphic product for sale in Wellcome Collection’s shop inspired by the collection itself. Continue reading

Creating the creative: Tibet’s Secret Temple

You may have seen the campaign for our recently opened Tibet’s Secret Temple exhibition: lush foliage and dramatic clouds, all cut out of paper and set against a crisp teal colour. If you’ve ever wondered how the identity of an exhibition comes together, Jo Finn explains with a bit of help from the creative talent behind it.

The brief


Instead of simply selecting a ‘hero object’ to showcase the exhibition, the creative brief for Tibet’s Secret Temple asked designers Malcolm Chivers and Liam Relph to reflect on the themes of journeying and secret, as well as the sky which is continuously referenced in Tibetan Buddhism, and clouds, often used to symbolise the breath, a key element of yoga.

The design process led to the commission of artist/illustrator Petra Börner and the construction of an innovative structure made by photographer Ben Gilbert in order to shoot the final artwork. Here the creative team share their roles in the process.

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Sex by numbers

When it comes to our sex lives we all like to keep a few secrets, making the jobs of sexologists pretty difficult, but in 1990, Natsal began lifting the lid on the sex lives of over 45,000 people. Professor David Spiegelhalter has explored their data and more in his book that accompanies our Sexology Season.

Inspired by all of this, Nice and Serious offer us a glimpse through windows into the world of sex to explore Natsal’s fascinating statistics. Tom Tapper explains how the creative agency approached turning decades’ worth of sex stats into an engaging infographic.

sexology pink text-06

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Finding Syrie

Sir Henry Wellcome and Gwendoline Syrie Wellcome. Wellcome Images

Sir Henry Wellcome and Gwendoline Syrie Wellcome. Wellcome Images

Who was Syrie Wellcome? Supriya Menon goes in search of the woman who shared Sir Henry’s life for ten years.

When you walk into the cool, dark interior of the Medicine Man gallery here at the Wellcome Collection, the first person to greet you is Henry Wellcome, or rather, a portrait of him in a splendid costume. You have already spoken of him before your day here has begun; if nothing else, you have uttered his name – Wellcome. His life story is presented before you; you are surrounded by his great love – his collection, and you are a few feet away from his great legacy – the Wellcome Trust.

The Cabinet of Wonders, the Wunderkrammer, is a glowing wooden cabinet in Medicine Man that displays a variety of glassware, along with a timeline of Henry Wellcome’s rise to success. However, there is one small photograph that is a testament to the one thing that he could not quite excel at – his marriage. Look closely and you will spot a photograph that at first glance seems to be just a good old-fashioned portrait of a couple, but on closer inspection, would seem to show a rather unusual pose for two people in love to  adopt, almost confrontational. It is Henry and his wife Syrie; and as our very own Ross MacFarlane from the library says, if there ever was a photograph that told the story of their marriage, this one is it.

Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo (1879–1955) was the third child born to Thomas Barnardo, the philanthropist who founded Dr Barnardo’s Homes for vulnerable children. Growing up in a rich but devoutly religious family, Syrie led a sheltered and comfortable life.  We do not know when Henry Wellcome and Syrie first met; however, it is known that Syrie’s father and Henry had been acquaintances for a few years.

Henry must have caught her interest, for at the age of 21, she joined a cruise on the Nile and followed Henry to North Africa. After a whirlwind romance, the two married on June 25, 1901 in Surbiton. She was 21, he was 47. The news of their engagement and subsequent marriage, all within a span of a few weeks, took their acquaintances by surprise. They were thrilled that Henry, who seemed destined to lead life as a bachelor, had finally settled down with a beautiful, intelligent and delightful young woman. In 1903, a son, Henry Mounteney Wellcome, was born to them.

Soon after their marriage, the happy couple socialised extensively and travelled abroad for months, during which Henry managed to find time to collect even more artefacts to ship back to England. Henry had decided to hold an exhibition on medical history around this time, and his collecting activity gained an urgency. What a new bride thought of this then is not clear; however, after the marriage ended, Syrie often complained that she had ‘sacrificed’ herself to this habit of Henry’s, one that she had ‘detested’. She certainly would have been surrounded by his collection at all times, whether travelling or at home – Henry’s offices were often flooded with artefacts from all over the world, packed and stored away, never to see daylight in decades; her home was cluttered with African ivory miniatures and poisoned arrows. Is it any surprise that when she later went on to forge a career as an interior designer, the style that she chose to make her own was one of light and space? Syrie is now considered to be a pioneer among interior designers, the one who introduced the concept of an ‘all white room’.

Henry and Syrie separated in April 1910 while on a trip to Panama, where he accused her of having an affair with an American financier (an accusation Syrie would vehemently deny for the rest of her life). Syrie left Panama alone and by the time Henry returned to England, the couple had separated. After their separation, Henry never spoke to Syrie again, so absolute was his belief in her infidelity. She was not permitted to contact him, and he seems to have destroyed all evidence of their nine years together. Pictures scholars have drawn of their marriage are all dependent on the divorce papers, and information from letters a hurt Henry and a bitter Syrie wrote to their friends.

Intriguing and sad in equal measure is the effect that something as simple as ‘collecting’ had on the life of Henry Wellcome. He had the means to afford and sustain what turned out to be a very expensive hobby, and he gave it everything. His wife certainly saw it as competition for her husband’s affection for both her and her child.

After separating from Henry, Syrie seems to have been able to live life on her own terms. In 1913, Syrie began a relationship with writer Somerset Maugham, and in 1915, a daughter, Liza, was born to them. Henry, who had been apprehensive of the social implications of a divorce, was still legally married to Syrie at this point. However, Liza’s birth seems to have been the final straw and Henry filed for divorce soon after, naming Maugham as a co-respondent. In 1917, Syrie and Maugham married in New Jersey, USA.

In 1922, Syrie launched her career as a serious interior designer by opening her store in London’s Baker Street. Syrie introduced styles and ideas that were revolutionary for the period, and she became a very popular designer who was sought out by the rich and famous on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Duchess of Windsor and designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Her marriage to Maugham did not last, however, and the two divorced in 1929. She raised her daughter by herself, and continued to work until her death in 1955. Maugham would later go on to publish works that were highly critical of Syrie, and in his 1962 memoir Looking Back, claimed Liza was not in fact his child. This led to a highly publicised court battle from which Liza emerged victorious.

I find Syrie’s life fascinating; she lived in an age that saw great social and political transformation in England and the world. She faced adversity in her personal life with strength and courage, and succeeded in becoming an accomplished businesswoman and a visionary designer who continues to inspire others to this day.

Supriya Menon is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Designing Brains

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Long before each exhibition opens at Wellcome Collection, we begin the process of designing the gallery to display the objects, taking multiple sources of inspiration, including the objects themselves. Museum and exhibition designer Calum Storrie explains how our Brains exhibition came to look the way it does.

Very quickly after reading the brief for the Brains exhibition and meeting the curators I revisited an old idea lifted shamelessly from the work of the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck. This was the sculpture pavilion designed for the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in 1966, composed of a series of parallel walls in concrete block. By pushing and pulling the shapes of the wall van Eyck suggested individual rooms and spaces for the sculptures. As one of the key concepts of the Brains exhibition as expressed by the co-curator Marius Kwint was ‘slicing’, I applied the idea, quite literally, to the plan. It was an idea that, as I explored the detail of the exhibition, solved a number of problems. It provided a structure to contain a diverse group of exhibits and it suggested an organized route around the exhibition while also allowing the possibility of disrupting that route. By making doorways and windows in the walls it allowed me to refer to links between the exhibitions themes and links between parts of the brain. As we got closer to a definitive list of objects the size of the exhibition grew and, at the same time, the layout became more complex.

Half way through the process I stopped thinking about brains. At this point the exhibits became shapes that needed to be accommodated on walls and in showcases. It was only when the first objects (films, medical apparatus, books and, eventually, real brains) were delivered that I began to consider the exhibition’s content anew. All exhibitions are, for me, like a laboratory experiment and there is a moment when the initial idea for the design bumps up against the many practical considerations and, if everything is in place, a kind of fusion occurs. Negotiating and facilitating this fusion is my job… acting as an intermediary between ideas, objects, space and people.

The making of an exhibition involves collaboration between curators, exhibition organisers and designers and the conversations we had in the development process were crucial in defining the form of the exhibition. Throughout the process of design I worked closely with the graphic designers Lucienne Roberts+. One of their initial ideas was for the treatment of the title and the texts within the exhibition. These took as their starting point storage, labelling and archiving. This offered another rich layer of complexity to the mix and helped me focus on what the 3 dimensional elements could achieve. One particular way in which this part of the design influenced my work was in making the exhibition structure monochrome… concentrating the use of strong colour on the title at the entrance.

The layout that emerged from the process of design allows for long views down the gallery and it emphasizes the idea of splitting and cutting. Long stretches of wall have been deliberately left ‘empty’ to give the exhibition a comfortable pace and to clarify how the material is read for those that choose to follow the sequence. The finished design incorporates both a clear diagram and an element of choice and maybe even chance.

This is the third exhibition I have worked on at Wellcome Collection and I never fail to be impressed by the energy of the team and their commitment to the design of their exhibitions.

Brains: The mind as matter is open until 17 June. Find out more about Calum Storrie’s work at