A corrosion cast of blood vessels in the brain. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty
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Wellcome Collection: raising the cultural profile of science

The newly-redeveloped Wellcome Collection is a place for thought-provoking mental adventures.

Today’s culture-vultures with access to London are completely spoiled for choice. From Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema’s most recent genre-breaking extravaganzas to the fashionable and wildly-popular Lates at the V&A or Science Museum, there is a lot on offer. And now they can add to their list of options a visit to the redeveloped Wellcome Collection, where thought-provoking mental adventures are being dished up in an expanded programme of exhibitions and events.

Of course, the range and depth of its recreational offer has long marked London out as one of the world’s most culturally productive metropolises. Even so, there seems to be something fresh about this recent crop of content-rich, inquisitive programming. Set against a backdrop of ever-more widely available (and therefore democratised?) online knowledge and comment, this burgeoning public offer has been especially animated by negotiations around how science should be served up. Think for example of the enormous success of science and knowledge-based shows like QI and The Infinite Monkey Cage, or the remarkable growth of popular science publishing that has catapulted bits of mathematics and other technical geekery from a purely campus-based clientele into the literary mainstream.

The cultural profile of science started noticeably to grow in the last quarter of the 20th century, at a time when those tasked to popularise it began to question whether their efforts were best couched simply in terms of the public “understanding” of science. Would it not, they wondered, be more interesting, effective, and frankly less condescending, to focus instead on the “dialogue” between science and the public? This change in vocabulary and the philosophical sympathies behind it led to far more tolerance for different forms of “edu-tainment” and informal learning. Science, it was insisted with increasing confidence, is inextricably part of society and culture, not something that floats above. Projects that freely mix the often-separated realms of science and art have, maybe, now emerged as the poster-girls for this approach to science engagement.

Though motivated by different needs and concerns, artists and scientists are, these days, routinely found in coffee shops, planning collaborative projects destined for public exposure. Many demonstrate a genuine balance between radically different attitudes and areas of expertise, with the science frequently providing the source of subject matter and the art a means by which to reconsider its meaning. In more than a few cases, it seems, intriguingly, that fruitful misunderstandings have provided a powerful source of inspiration. And in some of the best, the final public outcomes manage to leave space for a dash of mystery – a source of dangerous ambiguity rarely tolerated in more straightforward science communication initiatives. The go-betweens that lubricate these sci-art projects (the negotiators and fixers) have developed ways of enabling people who won’t ever completely understand each other’s ways of working or thinking nonetheless to form productive and enjoyable partnerships.

Early examples produced in the 1990s – artists visualising parts of embryology or collaborating with clinicians and patients suffering with phantom limbs for example – mostly found limited public exposure in smaller niche science or arts venues, places nevertheless brave enough to tuck something strange or charmed in the corner of an entrance lobby. A crop of spaces purpose-designed for the new millennium has changed all that.

One of them, Wellcome Collection, was set up as a venue that self-consciously championed an ideas-led vision of public engagement. First opening its doors in June 2007, it has already had seven years to experiment with cross-disciplinary exhibitions, events, publications and digital initiatives – projects that have tackled subjects as diverse as the skin, brains and laughter; war, death and outsider art. But inspiration for the Wellcome Collection can also be found way back in the deep history of museums, amongst Renaissance cabinets of curiosity as well as the latter-day activities of the eponymous businessman and collector Henry Wellcome, who set up his own massive Edwardian wardrobe of wonders. Both provide inspirational earlier examples of how maverick searchers, stirred by an inquisitiveness that outstripped disciplinary constraints, sought to have new thoughts through things and actions. Drawing on these history lessons, Wellcome Collection has been marketed as a haven for people fuelled with an incurable curiosity: a lively public platform for shows that cut across the arts, humanities and sciences; the lay and professional versions of health; the present as well as the past.

After a £17.5m redevelopment, Wellcome Collection is re-emerging on London’s cultural stage with more spaces, more content and, crucially, even more curiosity. Stepping off the Euston Road, visitors begin their trip with the Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime exhibition. It traces the paths, often as disturbing as they are intricate, along which evidence makes its way from crime scenes to courtrooms, highlighting some of the pivotal moments in the history of legal medicine. Up a dramatic new sculptural staircase onto the first floor, visitors are teasingly invited to ‘undress your mind’ and step into the Institute of Sexology. From Alfred Kinsey’s complex questionnaires to the contemporary National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), material in this year-long exhibition sheds light on how the practice of research into sex has shaped our ever-evolving attitudes towards behaviour and identity.

Up one more flight of stairs sits Wellcome Collection’s final public space, our reconsidered version of a reading room. Part library, part gallery, this grand but cosy room is designed to nurture the habits of those who want to spend most time with us, delving as deeply as they wish, increasingly on their own terms. In previous times this space has been both a Hall of Statuary and the Library’s catalogue room. And now, holding on to both bits of its heritage, this space offers artworks and exhibits to promote acts of looking, talking and sharing, while at the same time shelves of books and accessible resources to encourage reading, touching, thinking and writing. These two entirely ubiquitous, but usually quite separate, types of cultural space (the gallery and library) have here been combined in order that our guests may indulge a multi-pronged and socially activated form of curiosity.

The type of intellectually promiscuous programming that runs throughout Wellcome Collection is in fact based on habits that are as old as the modern museum itself. A reinvigorated version of this calling, which champions its magical over more administrative attributes, is today cropping up in surprisingly diverse cultural niches: on the radio, behind the camera, in clubs, on stage, even in kitchens and bedrooms (that are then, of course, shared with anyone who has access to wifi and a screen). The workforce behind this spicy new public diet is a cluster of cultural impresarios and public researchers: new curators for the 21st century. Their predecessors thought of themselves as institution-based “keepers” (frequently their official title) who shepherded treasured collections and sometimes worked at shaping aesthetic taste.

Today’s re-booted version have jazzed-up that protective, nurturing role, applying a showier version of it to initiatives that animate semi-forgotten ideas and stuff with new meanings. Invented (or at least boosted) in the world of contemporary art, their more front-footed creative instincts are, ironically, having their greatest impact well beyond the self-referential world in which they emerged. Unleashed on topics that resonate with everyday significance, these habits of finding overlooked or obscure ingredients and making inspiring lateral associations between them can uncover touching insights in the midst of banality, illuminating extraordinary aspects of the everyday. Dirt, sleep, death, recreational drugs and mistakes: these, for example, are just some of the down-to-earth themes tackled in Wellcome Collection.

Hovering somewhere between entertaining experiences and ephemeral knowledge, these new public projects are serious in intent but loose in form. They are layered with stimulating hunches, and semi-activated ideas that can only be fully thought-through with the effort invested by the visitors and participants themselves, who ultimately turn them into a new kind of thinking out loud.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.