Death: A Self-Portrait at the Wellcome Collection

In Exhibitions, Temporary Exhibitions on November 19, 2012 at 12:51 pm

As anyone who has read my previous reviews of Wellcome Collection exhibitions knows, I’m a big fan. I love Henry Wellcome. I love his collection. I love the history of medicine. So when the Wellcome opened an exhibition entitled Death, I was quite exited.

Photography is not allowed inside this exhibition, so all images are © The Wellcome Collection.

This exhibition eschews the wealthy source-material of the Wellcome Collection itself, drawing exclusively on the collection of Richard Harris. Not the Richard Harris who enchanted the world as Dumbledore, but a former art dealer that collects loosely around the theme of death. This made up of paintings, artefacts, sculptures and trinkets, historic and modern, pertaining to the end that awaits us all. It is, although assigned a Wellcome curator, a bought-in exhibition, which has been doing the rounds for a while.

Henry Wellcome himself collected loosely around the theme of health, so in many ways Harris and his collection are Wellcome’s opposite number. This could provide another clue as to why this exhibition feels utterly out of step with what the Wellcome usually does (apart from being an outside job). Its got a very different feel to it, and I don’t think that’s a good thing this time.

There is a massive over-reliance on 2D art. This isn’t always a bad thing – the Wellcome’s Magic, an excellent exhibition of Mexican votive retablos, was a fabulous exhibition. It was innovative, simple, colourful, and different to anything else that’s going on in museums or art galleries in London, as most of the Wellcome’s exhibitions are. That is its USP. Death, however, feels very much phoned in. It feels like a completely different team worked on it.

Most disappointing of all, Wellcome have blown their load on an awesome exhibition title. Surely, I thought, Death is IMPOSSIBLE for such a great exhibition team to get wrong! There is so much scope to look at things you wouldn’t immediately think of; it’s a dream title. This was such a WASTE. It’s not even an accurate title; the self-portrait addendum is tenuous at best. “SKULLS! SKULLS EVERYWHERE!” would have been a far more accurate moniker. That appears to be the only solid theme. This misuse of a Death title is all the more upsetting because Doctors, Disection and Resurrection Men over at the Museum of London is kicking ass and taking names.

In addition to the content, the exhibition design is dismal. The Wellcome has money coming out of its ears (its physically and financially attached to the Wellcome Trust), so there is no excuse for this. Plexiglass boxes, block colours, fake fireplaces and the general air of a local authority museum circa 2001 abound. The Wellcome usually does simple set design with grace and style, but on this occasion  it feels cheap and boring, and decidedly un-Wellcome (ing).

It’s not all bad – there’s a small section on Day of the Dead skulls and skeletons at the end which is much more interesting, although frustratingly small. In the very last room (which has a bizarre and half-arsed attempt to include 70s style G-plan furniture into the space – very odd) there is a giant infographic on the causes of death in the world today. These two titbits are much more Wellcome Collection in style, and stand out against the dreary backdrop. Some of the events look great too, in particular the Hospice talk, but you would be very lucky to get a ticket. These events are free, and are usually booked up in a matter of hours.

Despite all this disappointment, I must, out of blind loyalty to the history of medicine (and the Museum that brought us the highly addictive and free Opium trading game, High Tea) offer a possible defence. The Wellcome has just announced some MASSIVE expansion plans, to the tune of almost £20 million. I can only imagine that the Public Programming team have been up to their eyeballs in that project recently, and the chance to borrow from another collector and not go through all the rigmarole of building their own exhibition must have provided some relief whole working on such a big proposal. I don’t know if that’s true or not, or if it is true, if it’s an acceptable reason to take the easy road; that’s for you to decide.

However, the joy of the Wellcome is it keeps changing, and thankfully we will be seeing something new in a few months. And one bad exhibition out of all the ones I have seen so far will not stop me from being SUPER EXCITED about this massive new project. I only hope that it doesn’t have a serious affect on the Wellcome’s current programming.

Death: A self-potrait at the Wellcome Collection is free and runs til 24th February 2013. The nearest tube stations are Euston, Euston square and Warren St. The giftshop is pricey, but one of the best sources of Secret Santa gifts you could imagine – it’s brilliant.


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