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An Idiosyncratic A to Z Of The Human Condition – Review

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

A quirky exhibition set in Euston’s Wellcome Collection or the ‘free destination for the incurably curious’, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition is a bold attempt at exploring the quirks and peculiarities of what makes us human.

Inundated with curious items, interactive exhibits and thematic sections, the exhibition has attempted to go beyond the gallery’s medical background and make it accessible to a large and diverse crowd. Objects have been taken from Henry Wellcome’s personal collection and the museum’s own holdings, and span a vast timeline with numerous different attempts at comprehending life’s mysteries.  From strange objects, photographs, paintings, medical artefacts and more, you are never sure what you’re about to see next.

Dissecting A – Z

The name A to Z isn’t just a novel touch, as each section of the exhibition is characterised by a letter. For instance, the ‘B For Birthdays’ section presents a video of the birth of the first test-tube baby or the ‘A For Acts Of Faith’, which is a selection of illustrations of accidents that visitors have submitted. Diverging from every subject imaginable, you can jump from ‘R is For Resourcefulness’ (which is a case covering glass eyes and Inuit goggles) to ‘S is For Skin Art’ (which displays tattooed skin and a Maori face cast).

The exhibition is visually demanding but also stimulating, with so many eclectic items on display, there’s a lot to take in. This definitely affects your attention span, as while you attempt to focus on one display, there’s always something in the corner of your eye trying to grab your attention.   

You can tell there has been a lot of thought put into the space, with a range of unique and wonderful exhibits to keep you going. One of the best ideas can be found in the ‘P For Philosophy’ section, in which you take a fortune cookie at the end of the exhibit and are bestowed some personal wisdom. Whilst some of the cookies convey a legitimate form of wisdom, mine had taken a more humorous stance: ‘The best measure of a man’s honesty isn’t his income tax return. It’s the zero adjust on his bathroom scale’.

Feeling unconnected

At times however, it becomes difficult to understand the relations between the displays and because of this, there are moments where it feels slightly disjointed. Whilst considerable effort has clearly gone into the exhibition, I felt I was missing the point on various occasions. It tends to jump drastically from subject to subject with everything from ‘C is for Chemical Life Support’ to ‘X is for X-Rated’. Then again, maybe that’s the point – the Wellcome Collection never claim to perfectly define the human condition, but instead simply offer an impressionist presentation.

There’s a multitude of objects and artefacts from all eras and walks of life, each hoping to give an insight into the meaning of life from individual perspectives. The ‘B For Birthdays’ for instance, features a horoscope dating back to 1411, which predicted that Prince Iskandar would lead a long life of good health. This however, didn’t ring true and he was later deposed, blinded and eventually died in prison. What’s interesting is that on the opposing wall is a poll which you can take asking you whether you believe in astrology or not? The same goes for the ‘Q is For Quarantine’ section, which along with a poll asking visitors whether forcible quarantine is acceptable?

The exhibition as a whole is incredibly interactive and can be inviting for any member of the family. From drawings, to polls and even board games, there really is something for everyone. If you arrive at the right time as well, you can even catch the live busking sessions, which focus on subjects such as neuroscience, phantom limb syndrome, and lessons regarding forgotten issues such as phrenology and foot binding. The majority of exhibits have a humorous twist to them, which makes them more appealing and accessible, even for those whose knowledge on the subject is limited.

An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition is an incredibly distinct and audacious exhibition that reveals the complexity and bizarre nature of humans. Stretching diverse subject matters, it’s difficult to define this show in a single sentence. There are a few unavoidable imperfections and sometimes the exhibits feel a little out of place, however they’re not trying to solve anything but merely present the innumerable attempts at defining humanity. You soon come to realise that humans are an incredibly difficult species to understand and perhaps a random assortment of items is the best we have for the time being.

‘An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition’ is a free exhibition at Wellcome Collection and runs from 24 June to until 12 October 2014. All images are credit – © Wellcome Library, including Woodcut of Nuremberg, Liber chronicum. Hartmann Schedell, 1493 © Wellcome Library, A man being hit on the head by a falling flowerpot in Rome. Italian, c. 1890. © Wellcome Library and Phrenological heads, Late nineteenth, early twentieth century © Science Museum/Wellcome Library.