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.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”