London Drawing in the Reading Room

Earlier this year, art collective London Drawing took over an area of our Reading Room to engage visitors and inspire them to get creative. The stand out activity was their Renaissance Selfies, relating to the theme of ‘face’. The co-director of the collective, Anne Noble-Partridge, tells us more about this fun, simple and effective photo opportunity.

As an artist I have always been interested in the way the frame of a photograph can remove an image from its true surroundings; the way you can play with reality through the ‘reality’ of the camera lens is fascinating.

It all started while I was on holiday in Italy, having overdosed on Italian Renaissance paintings. I whiled away a wet evening messing about taking self portrait photographs in the Renaissance style using what I had around me: an embroidered bedspread, sun visor and pillowcase. I really enjoyed the process and got quite engrossed in it. Continue reading


We invited artists to programme or perform live vocalisations in the ‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ gallery space over the show’s run (exhibition closes 31 July). These daily events offered an intimate, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mechanics of voice production and vocal exercises. Elissavet Ntoulia reflects on this unorthodox programme of events. 

59 live performances over 10 weeks by 9 artists inside ‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ exhibition: Voicings can officially go down in Wellcome Collection’s exhibition history as the first programme of daily live performances.

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Meredith Monk’s Ascension Variations (2009) in New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Although performance in museums is not new, the recent opening of the new Tate Modern has shown yet again how performance has been gaining ground recently in big institutions. It can vary from large scale, all-building occupations like Meredith Monk’s (whose work also features in ‘THIS IS A VOICE’) Ascension Variations (2009) in New York’s Guggenheim, to in-gallery performances like that of the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham in Barbican’s ‘The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns’ exhibition (2013). Performance art of any kind and scale has also been seen by institutions as adding value towards their effort for creating unique visitor experiences and offering increased opportunities for interaction and participation. Continue reading

Infectious Diseases in the Reading Room

Our Object and Archive sessions in the Reading Room are intended to start a dialogue with a group of visitors about a given subject. Sol and Loesja tell us more.

That headline was a little bit alarming, wasn’t it? There aren’t really infectious diseases in the Reading Room. Well, there are, but only metaphorically. Sensationalist headlines are just one of the things we talk about when approaching the topic of Infectious Diseases in our Object and Archive sessions, which take place in the Reading Room. We also cover pustules, poetry, deification, vaccination and odd cures.

Object and Archive sessions are a collaboration between the Library and Collection, both of whom share the Reading Room: a hybrid exhibition-library-events space. Like the Reading Room itself, Infectious Diseases participants are encouraged to share ideas, experiences and expertise; we feed off this input whilst drawing on objects in that room and others within our collections. Continue reading

Researching Pornography

Pornography is both consumed and condemned by the public, but there is very little research that engages with ‘ordinary’ people who use it. Researchers Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith held in-gallery discussions earlier this year, asking how, when and why people turn to pornography. In this post, they tell us more about their work and respond to some of the questions raised during the discussions in our Sexology gallery.


Clarissa Smith is Professor of Sexual Cultures at University of Sunderland and Feona Attwood is Professor of Media and Communications at Middlesex University. We have been researching in the areas of pornography, sexuality and media technologies for more than twenty years. We are also the editors of the Routledge journal “Porn Studies” and Feona is a co-editor of the Sage journal “Sexualities”.

With Professor Martin Barker (University of Aberystwyth) we launched an online questionnaire to examine where, how and why people engage with pornographic representations. We received almost 5,500 responses (2/3 male; 1/3 female) from across the globe.


How, when and why did you turn to this field of research?

Clarissa’s academic career has centred on the ways in which pornography matters to those who consume it and to those who would condemn it. She started out on this research during her MA studies and continued them as a PhD project looking at how women responded to the publication of a softcore magazine called For Women.

She is interested in the textual formations of pornography and how those play out across different technologies; in how people access and engage with pornographic materials and with other forms of sexualized products; she’s also intrigued by the constant demands for increasing regulation and censorship which rarely seem to engage with the idea that pornographies are realms of representation which dramatise all kinds of sexual feelings and fantasies and therefore actually matter to people in important ways. Continue reading

Photographs as evidence

How did sexologists use and interpret photographic evidence? What role did such photographs play in allowing individuals to explore their own gender identity and sexuality? In this blog, literary scholar and historian of sexuality Dr Jana Funke reflects on her experiences discussing sexology and photography with visitors of the Institute of Sexology exhibition.

In 1919, German-Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1869-1935) opened his Institute of Sexual Research in Berlin. In addition to operating as a clinic, the Institute housed an archive and library and offered educational services to members of the public. Among Hirschfeld’s vast collection were hundreds of photographs, some of which were exhibited at the Institute.

To me, Wellcome Collection’s The Institute of Sexology exhibition is a bit of an homage to Hirschfeld’s Institute and so I was keen to see how visitors today might respond to such photographs. In January, I had the opportunity to find out, as I spent three afternoons in the exhibition talking to visitors about sexology and photography.

Dr Jana Funke discusses sexology and photography at the Institute of Sexology exhibition.

Dr Jana Funke discusses sexology and photography at the Institute of Sexology exhibition.

Continue reading

#MuseumWeek 2014

Next week we will be joining loads of other museums and galleries across Europe to take part in Twitter’s #MuseumWeek (Monday 24 to Sunday 30 March). Each day will have its own theme, hashtag and activities. From #DayInTheLife on Monday to #MuseumSelfies on Saturday and #GetCreative on Sunday.


Monday 24 March is a #DayInTheLife. We follow Exhibitions Coordinator Luke Curral as he travels to Paris to see what he gets up to.


This is all about testing your knowledge of Wellcome Collection as we pose a series of riddles and quizzes about mystery objects from our Medicine Now gallery on Tuesday 25 March. Who will be #MuseumMastermind?


We invite you to share your #MuseumMemories and tell us why you love museums on Wednesday 26 March.


On Thursday 27 March we’ll be sharing blog posts, information and images about the history and future of the Wellcome Collection building as we go #BehindTheArt.


Stephen Lowther from Wellcome Library joins us between 12.00 and 13.00 on Friday 28 March to take part in a live Q&A about the library’s fascinating ‘tart card’ collection as you #AskTheCurator.


Saturday 29 March sees the return of the popular Culture Themes topic of #MuseumSelfie. We would love to see some of your selfies if you’re visiting Wellcome Collection on the day itself or if you’ve taken some previously. Share them with us on Twitter or Instagram and be sure to follow the hashtag to see everyone else’s selfies across Europe. Here are a few in case you need some inspiration.


On Sunday 30 March we want you to #GetCreative. We’re looking for creative responses inspired by Wellcome Collection within the constraints of Twitter, in the form of prose, plays, poetry and puns. The way you approach this is entirely up to you; the only rule is that you do so using Twitter’s 140 characters to limit your output (but not your creativity!). Whether it’s a 140 character poem or a play spread across five tweets, it’s up to you. I wonder if Wellcome Collection’s fans are as inventive as other museums’…

Dust off your Twitter profile and prepare to tweet like you’ve never tweeted before!

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

It isn’t often on a Sunday morning that you see twelve people, old and young, roll across the floor and find new expressions within their own bodies. It is this kind of event that makes Wellcome Collection so unique, fusing ideas of science and art with the body. Kate Gosling was one of those people and discusses what was involved.

The workshop (part of a series of events accompanying Foreign Bodies, Common Ground), led by Nana Dakin and Kage, evolved from the residency of B-Floor Theatre at the Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University-Tropical Medicine Research Programme in Bangkok, Thailand. The residency explored research into malaria and other tropical diseases, and the parasites and other illness-giving agents that can take over our body and cause it to react and change in a way that might be completely new to us. The ideas of these bodily possibilities, which originate when we are well and when we are ill, used ideas of movement to bring these ideas to life.

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

Kage showed the group how to move their stomachs around like there was ‘a worm’ or a disease in them. He talked them through this new sensation, making it seem real to them through the dialogue and story he presented. It was new to them, this disease, they had never felt it before, and then it started moving all around their body and making different parts of them twitch in different ways. Eventually it hit their brains and their face. The ideas of cerebral malaria came to mind in what went from a gentle mime to one that gave terrifying fit-like movements. Eventually, although it was not explicit, Kage asked that everyone imagine they held it in their cheeks, thousands of these ‘worms’, and then spat them out. And he said, “Well done, you are all healthy again”. They had been through an illness without being ill. Could they connect with some of this feeling of being well again on a cellular level?

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

Creation ideas and ideas linked with evolution followed. Kage had a powerful way of presenting movement through the idea of becoming other animals. Everyone was crawling on the floor like an amoeba, a one-cell creation. Nana and Kage started everyone playing rock, paper, and scissors. When you won you evolved into multi-cellular animals, and everyone went from amoeba to worm, frog, monkey and human in a game that playfully followed in Charles Darwin’s footsteps! I thought it was funny that people seemed to have a sense of pride in becoming human and staying human. Although one woman said that the workshop had helped her feel closer to all living species.

The second part of the workshop used objects: tools as an extension of our bodies and us. The participants were given objects and Kage asked them: if you were a cellular body other than a human, how would you interact with this object? Some had colourful hula hoop pipes that could spiral into a DNA-style helix; others had balloons, scarves, jumpers and plastic bags. One of the bags is featured in a video currently showing in our Foreign Bodies, Common Ground exhibition.

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

In sets of between two and four, participants who had only known each other a few hours performed together for the others, showcasing their new movements and the new bodily possibilities that they had created and found within themselves. There was lots of humour as well as serious elements and everyone seemed to work well together without self-consciousness.

I asked Nana what B-Floor might be doing next. She said that they hoped to continue this kind of workshops because the time they had on the residency had been a real journey. The success of their workshop was evident and many of the participants asked if we were repeating this type of event.

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

In terms of the bigger picture revealed within Foreign Bodies, Nana expresses the idea of research and the implications within the community as “zooming in and zooming out”. That phrase really appeals to me. She says a big theme in B-Floor is the sense of examining tiny things under a microscope and also looking at the larger social and political impact.

Nana says: “we want to know how it works. Why is it that way? How does it connect to these circumstances, these structures, these environments, these people? And how can I explain this to someone else? How can I convince them that it is valid? We gather information, we make conclusions, we make hypotheses and we ask more questions. We wonder if our work will have an impact; will it change the lives of people around us? Will it alter the lives of those who come after us? We zoom in and we zoom out.”

Foreign Bodies, Common Ground has been extended to 16th March 2014.

Kate Gosling is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

What Is A Body?

With ‘Thinking with the Body’ behind us, our ‘Foreign Bodies’ exhibition in full swing and a series of ‘Bodily Possibilities’ movement workshops coming up, Natalie Coe reflects on what a body actually is.

Our bodies are the basis for our existence and it is through them that we experience the world. Their mediating role is reflected in our language – for example, in phrases like ‘the heart of the community’, ‘the head of an organisation’ and ‘the brains of an operation’ or in more physical references such as ‘the foot of a mountain’. We often talk of society and nations as if they were bodies, too. But what about manmade objects? Can they also be bodies?

This was the subject of an event at Wellcome Collection on Thursday 19 September 2013, ‘What is a body?’ with anthropologist James Leach and Scott deLahunta, the Research Director of Wayne McGregor I Random Dance. The event was facilitated by Emma Redding, Head of Dance Science at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. The speakers’ respective projects on Papua New Guinean knowledge production and UK-based contemporary dance may seem a curious combination, but both investigate bodies and objects as social beings in different contexts. Leach’s research is about how people on the Rai Coast of Papau New Guinea understand bodies to be ‘dividual’ (made up of, or ‘grown from’, other people), and deLahunta has been part of a project developing an intelligent software ‘body’ that is used by dancers to generate dance making by provoking new movement creation in the studio. In both examples, bodies are seen as objects that elicit a compelling kinaesthetic response.

Leach began by discussing his commitment to anthropological methods and the importance of taking the ‘life-worlds’ of others seriously – worlds from which we can learn a great deal. In this case, the Papua New Guineans can teach us different ways to conceive of ‘being a person’ and ‘having a body’ in a place where the conceptual and material world are less distinguishable from each other. It was suggested that the audience generally imagine themselves as individuals who have physically grown from internal processes. This is just one way of understanding a person that has emerged from our own history and culture. In the Pacific, Leach argues, people are seen as ‘dividual’ rather than individual, so people are divisible into the different things and people that make them up. This is strongly linked to the ‘reproduction economy’ in the region, which is primarily intended to produce skilled or valuable people rather than things. Valuable skills and knowledge, therefore, reside in bodies or persons.

Accordingly, when a woman marries and moves to her husband’s home, there is an ‘exchange obligation’ to replace the substance and value of that woman in the home she leaves. The people in the husband’s hamlet gather materials to make an effigy of her to give to her former community, and this is explicitly referred to as a body; not a representation of a body, but an actual body. Importantly, the new wife helps to create this substitute body, so this practice should not be seen as buying or exchanging the wife as a commodity. The wife’s body, like all bodies, is understood to have been ‘grown’ from the outcomes of other people’s labour – their farming or hunting for the food that a body needs. People therefore work in a similar way to grow the substitute body, or effigy, by collecting garden foods to make the forehead and face, dog’s teeth and shells for concealed bones, taro for viscera, and so on. As well as being made by other people, bodies and substitute bodies are physical manifestations of social obligations and the relationships between people. Each body, or person, is therefore different because they have different relationships with others.

That a body is constituted by the deliberate and specific work of, and relationships with, others means that persons are always transforming. This is something we might recognise in our own lives. It is less easy to relate to the strong impetus to labour that this conception of a body creates; labour output is very tangible because it results in a body and because it is made clear who laboured to make that body. This is also what makes the substitute body kinaesthetically compelling: it is recognisable as the person it substitutes, it is the sum of many different relationships between people and it fulfils obligations in the same way a human does. People feel compelled to collect for and create the effigy, as well as to transfer it to the wife’s hamlet (where it is accepted as a substitute body).

It is the compelling quality of these substitute bodies that deLahunta explained was lacking in the original version of the choreographic software that they were working on for Wayne McGregor I Random Dance. As McGregor said, the software ‘needed a body’. Leach’s ethnographic detail was therefore a great starting point for thinking about how they could create software, or a choreographic object, that would somehow mimic a body and elicit a creative response from the dancers.

DeLahunta gave some context to their plan for choreographic software by explaining the choreographic method of ‘tasking’, one of the main ways Wayne McGregor works with his dancers to generate new material. Tasking is giving a dancer a choreographic instruction or problem to solve, often involving mental imagery instructions – for example: ‘Imagine you are carrying a giant heavy bell (image below); now imagine yourself underneath it, describe the shape with your body, convey the shape/feeling/sound it provokes’. This process is not about getting the dancers to act things out; it is a way of providing stimuli and enhancing their imagery skills to generate unique ways of moving. The researchers, therefore, wanted to create a software tool that could augment this work. The first iteration became known as the Choreographic Language Agent (CLA).

What is a body?

CLA took what was happening in the mind and attempted to re-create it on two screens, so instructions were put in and the software generated them on-screen for the dancers to create movement material from. It worked in generating movement and in helping researchers understand choreographic thinking, but the tool itself was found to be missing something. The CLA was on a computer outside of the studio space, so – ironically – it took dancers away from the creative environment and disrupted their choreographic process, rather than working with it. When Leach spoke to McGregor about what a body actually is he explained that you cannot be in a space with another body without feeling a response to it, and that is what they wanted to capture with the choreographic software. This led to the idea of having an ‘11th dancer’, a body that is in the studio with the dancers that follows choreographic instruction, elicits a kinaesthetic response in the dancers and compels them to move.

The latest version of this software is called Becoming. Its 3D, 63”-screen interface was on display in our ‘Thinking with the Body’ exhibition with some 3D glasses that visitors could use to try it out, just like the dancers do in the studio (image below). An image on the screen grows, changes shape and colour, and moves in an organic way. Sometimes, the shape begins to look like limbs or even a human body. The size of the screen has the effect of feeling like a body in the space too. It is also intelligent, in a way; for example, it ‘knows’ where the sides of the screen are, so the shape it produces from inputted instructions can get stuck against the side and be pulled down by gravity.

"Becoming", the 3D, 63”-screen interface which was on display in our ‘Thinking with the Body’ exhibition.

“Becoming”, the 3D, 63”-screen interface which was on display in our ‘Thinking with the Body’ exhibition.

These fascinating and thought-provoking case studies from Leach and deLahunta initiated a lively audience discussion. One audience member questioned whether the substitute body and the Becoming software were actually anything like a body, given that they do not respond to or interact with people. Leach responded by distinguishing between bodies and people; describing something as a body does not mean it is a person. The way the software mimics a body is to make it useful and generative for choreographing. Becoming is also interesting as an ‘object of thought’ because, in addition to provoking sensations, it encourages the dancers to apply an analytical perspective to what they see and the decisions they make. Consequently, it is a good source of research material for scientists thinking about what thinking is.

The facilitator, Emma Redding, raised the issue of who ‘owns’ the movements that emerge from the choreographic process, given that there is extensive creative input from all the dancers. Perhaps the example of the concept of ‘a body’ in Papua New Guinea is relevant here because the effigies produced are explicitly non-traceable once they are given away, and no one claims any part individually; instead, the ownership lies in the relationships between people, so it is distributed between all involved. This is interesting in light of David Kirsh’s research on distributed creativity in the choreographic process. In support of this, none of the speakers has encountered dancers claiming credit for movements within a piece because the process is so collaborative. It would be very difficult to pinpoint who came up with each movement when everyone works in response to each other. This is valuable to remember in a culture in which there is still the notion of a genius choreographer single-handedly creating a masterpiece. The questions also generated discussions about gender, technology, and the absence of statues and representative art in Papua New Guinea.

Although the event did not attempt to definitively answer what a ‘body’ is, the speakers presented the workable and succinct definition of “something that elicits a kinaesthetic response in another body” using two very interesting examples from opposite ends of the globe, which was useful in helping us to think about the broadness and subjectivity of the question. As Leach pointed out, anthropology constantly reminds us of the irreducibility of experience – so, ultimately, it may not be possible to define what a body is after all.

Check out Muriel Bailly’s previous blog post about where science, dance and choreography meet as she looks into the ideas behind the Thinking with the Body exhibition.

A carnival of error

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The Wrong! event at Wellcome Collection on Friday celebrated wrongness with a ‘carnival of human error’. Iona Twaddell learned that being wrong can be entertaining, and can actually sometimes be useful.

One obvious way in which we all enjoy being wrong is when we watch magic. I learned this as I came through the door and a close-up magician convinced me that my chosen queen of spades had magically appeared in his wallet. The reason we fall for these tricks was explained later by Dr Gustav Kuhn, who spoke about the psychology of magic. Our visual system has inherent limitations. We think we see a full picture of the world around us, but in actual fact we only ever see a tiny amount. This is partly because the world is only in focus on a small patch of the retina, known as the fovea. We use eye movements to focus important objects onto the fovea but the rest is blurry. And even when we are looking at something is in focus, we might not consciously see it, because seeing requires attention. This is why driving while using your mobile phone is so dangerous: you may see an obstacle in front of you, but if you’re not attending to it you won’t notice it. This is also why magic works. The magician uses misdirection to make sure you don’t attend to the trickery. But, as Dr Kuhn told us, being fooled by a magician actually shows us that our brain processes information efficiently, only seeing what is relevant. We’re wrong because our brains didn’t evolve to spot magicians’ tricks but to spot important visual information, like predators.

And I got more used to being wrong throughout the night. In the Medicine Man gallery I learned I knew nothing about obscure medical facts. Who knew that transplanting faecal matter from healthy intestines into unhealthy ones to cure bacterial disease was a current medical practice? I certainly didn’t. You can learn a lot from being wrong.

Not feeling too bad about being wrong about facts I had no reason to know, I learned that I was even wrong about my own body. Various illusions showed how you can trick your body into thinking it’s not your own. They can induce the feeling that your face is merged with someone else’s or make you feel like a fake hand is your own. Several of these illusions occur because our visual system overrides what we feel: we trust sight more than touch. These mistakes can actually help us sometimes: a mirror box is used for amputees with ‘phantom limbs’ (they feel that their amputated limb is still there) to make them feel like they ‘see’ their missing limb and hopefully get rid of any pain that might be lingering there.

Finally, I learned how irrational our choices are from Dr Benedetto de Martino. He told us that instead of being like Spock, making decisions by weighing up all possible evidence, we are more like Winnie the Pooh. Various phenomena show this. For example, McNeil and colleagues in 1988 asked expert doctors whether they would choose surgery as a treatment for cancer. The risk of surgery was either framed as survival rate or mortality rate. The experts were more likely to go for the risky surgery if the risk was framed as survival (a gain) than as mortality (a loss). This risk-seeking behaviour for gains and risk-averse behaviour for losses is also seen in gambling tasks in the lab and seems to be determined in a large part by the amygdala, a brain region important for emotion. Those without an amygdala tend to make the same choices regardless of how the question is framed. But being logical on these tasks might not actually be being truly rational. If you consider rationality being optimally adapted to the environment, then in fact we are very rational. Dr de Martino explains this by considering that in nature, a gain will often be small (getting some water) and you will have another chance to get the gain if you fail. But a loss could be death, with no second chance. So avoiding loss is more important than making a gain. Though we may be wrong from Spock’s view, we are right for our environment.

I hope I’ve given you an idea of carnival of human error on show. But actually what I’ve learned is that a lot of the time, it’s all right to be wrong.

Iona Twaddell is an Assistant Editor at the Wellcome Trust.

Phantom limbs and extra noses

A mirror box experiment at a Barbican 'Wonder' event.

A mirror box experiment at a Barbican ‘Wonder’ event.

On Friday 5 July, as part of  Wrong! A carnival of human error at Wellcome Collection, Matt Longo and Elena Azañón  will be presenting perceptual illusions that play with the body’s sense of itself. Here they explain how even your own limbs might not be telling you the truth…

No matter what we do, no matter where we go, our body is right there with us. Our body is the most familiar object we encounter. As William James wrote, it’s “that same old body always there”. Surely if there’s anything we know like the back of our hand it’s… the back of our hand.

Research in psychology and neuroscience has started to revolutionise how we understand the way we experience our body, and how the body is represented in the brain. Along the way, this research has revealed some surprising findings, showing that in many circumstances we appear to have remarkably poor knowledge about our body. Moreover, our perceptual experience of our body can be altered by simple sensory inputs.

For example, anyone unfortunate to have received dental anaesthesia will know that it makes it feel like your mouth has become enormous. Effects like this suggest that the signals the brain receives from nerves from all over the body continuously shape our mental picture of our body, what is commonly called the ‘body image’. Other illusions make people feel like their waist is wider or thinner than it really is, or even that their nose is getting longer like they were Pinocchio!

Recent research has begun to quantify effects like this and to investigate the underlying processes in the brain. Both of us are currently researching particular aspects of this area: Matt is investigating the mental representation of our body and how this shapes perception, and Elena is interested in the way we perceive touch when the body adopts different postures.

On July 5, as part of Wrong! at the Wellcome Collection, we will be demonstrating some of our favourite perceptual illusions. You’ll be able to try out the ‘mirror box’ that allows amputees to ‘see’ their phantom limb, or to experience the feeling that your own face has become merged with somebody else’s. You can sense how a prosthetic hand really feels like part of your body, or even experience having two noses. We’ll explain how scientists are using these illusions to reveal how the mind represents the body, how different senses such as vision and touch become integrated, and how these processes are implemented in the brain.

We hope to see you there.  Don’t forget to bring your body!

Wrong! is at Wellcome Collection on 5 July. Matt Longo is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck. Elena Azañón is a Marie Curie Research Fellow in the Institute of Neuroscience at UCL.