Thursday, June 28, 2007

Heartening new exhibition at the Wellcome

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the new Wellcome galleries today. There are three exhibition spaces: a temporary space, 'Medicine Man' and 'Medicine Now'. The temporary exhibition space is currently devoted to the heart. Here you can see ancient Egyptian papyrus illustrating separate hieroglyphs for the physical heart and the spiritual one. There's an amazing pair of 17th century anatomical tables -- huge slabs of cedar wood on which is mounted actual venal and arterial material. Galen, da Vinci and Harvey all receive attention in the exhibition.

The middle section of the exhibition is devoted to technology, with explanations of the first heart transplant and a recently-retired heart/lung machine on display. An interesting portion looks at the symbolic power of the heart, including the sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs, and the concept of the 'sacred heart' as the seat of the soul. The art in the exhibition is fascinating, from traditional portraits to more contemporary work. I was particularly drawn to a large-scale work mounted on the wall called 'Le Coeur II' by Annette Messager. It consists of soft toys that have been 'operated on' so that they are reconstructed in new and disturbing ways. They are hung in the shape of a heart. The work sets up a tension between the apparently 'heartless' toys and the emotional resonance that soft toys automatically set up with the overtones of children and illness... It is very affective.

Other interesting objects include a piece of tattooed human skin (somehow more fascinating when it's detached from the rest of the body), a pig's heart stuck with nails and thorns recovered from a chimney in Somerset in the 19th century, and the dried heart of a whale.

There are various points in the gallery where you can listen to heart-themed songs. I like that it is not strictly chronologically arranged. The art and science permeate each other. Poems are displayed on X-rays. I am less sure about the 'porthole' type windows in the gallery that are eye-piercingly bright compared with the dim interior. Who needs to see Euston Road traffic anyway? The exhibition continues till 16 September.

I'll review the other exhibitions in the building soon.

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