Nakedness in an art gallery? Usually it’s restricted to the pictures on display. Not so at Wellcome Collection, where we recently conducted a very unusual tour of ‘Skin’, as Elizabeth Baddeley and Natalie Coe explain….
Henry Wellcome arrived in England not long after the Victorians introduced the humble swimming costume to the Engish seaside to ensure everyone covered their naked skin at the beach. So what would he have thought of public nudity at a contemporary museum in his name? This is a question he would have had to confront if he had been at the Wellcome Collection on 18 July when 30 visitors came on a ‘clothes-optional’ Perspectives tour of our special exhibition ‘Skin’.
We thought that an exhibition that takes a philosophical and often challenging approach to skin wouldbn’t be complete without the viewpoint of a community who enjoy baring their skin. High on our list of invitees was therefore Andrew Welch, from British Naturism, who we asked to come and offer his take on skin in terms of our own nakedness and social nudity.
Andrew pointed out that a scuba diving expert wouldn’t talk about scuba diving underwater and that he similarly did not need to do the tour unclothed. But we thought insisting on clothes would be a missed opportunity for an exhibition that re-evaluates our relationship with skin. Thus, after a few extra health and safety negotiations, we boldly advertised the event and waited for a response.
And what a response! It turns out people had been crying out for such an opportunity. Sure enough, Andrew and the majority of the attendees embraced the evening unclothed. Some had never been naked in public before, but a show of hands indicated that prior experience of some form of social nudity, even if it was just topless sunbathing, was almost unanimous amongst the group – as it may well be amongst any group of friends.
We were initially taken aback by the unfamiliar sight of mass nudity in such a familiar setting. However the evening soon felt remarkably unremarkable; especially as the group blended into the flesh-coloured design of the exhibition. Everyone seemed at ease as we meandered past the various ceramics and videos, photos and paintings, wax models and drawings; all exploring skin in its multiple guises. Each seemed to take on a new poignancy with the addition of a group of skin-clad visitors.
It was also nice that people felt they could attend the tour without exposing their skin (including us Visitor Services Assistants – the excuse being that we had to wear our badges, radios, security passes etc. And it is our workplace after all…). In this sense, the clothed and unclothed were not segregated in the way they would be at a designated nudist beach. Interestingly, it was us who felt like the odd ones out in this scenario; an important reminder that such feelings are determined by social context. Perhaps this feeling is shared by the ‘reverse streakers’ of clothed people who run across the pitch at the annual nude rugby games in Dunedin, New Zealand!
Events like this and the amount of skin we see in the media and through work by artists such as Spencer Tunick (whose ‘Melbourne 5’ we are lucky enough to display in our conference centre), would suggest a relaxation of attitudes to nudity – a far cry from Victorian England. But social nudity is still somewhat taboo and we are pretty sure that a clothes-optional tour in a London museum is unprecedented. Andrew acknowledged that this would have been unthinkable a few years ago and it seems appropriate that a pioneering venue such as ours would be the first museum to allow its guests to bare all.
There is of course a difference between being naked in a public place and social nudity as a collective activity. This was aptly demonstrated on the tour by Gordon, who Andrew had invited along as a co-tour guide. Gordon gave a wonderful account of being in the great outdoors and hiking up mountains with only his skin between him and the elements, but you wouldn’t catch him at an organised nude event! His personal perspective offered an insight to the heterogeneity of naturists as well as provoking some interesting contemplation on how tattoos fit in with being naked. Does body decoration act as a kind of clothing that contravenes the ethos of naturism? Or does it become, as Gordon feels, a part of your nakedness?
The two different perspectives of Andrew and Gordon suggest that British Naturism is not for everyone. Indeed, as Glenn Smith discussed at our ‘Skin: Exposed’ symposium, having a concrete organisation does run the risk of becoming too ideological and can construct a narrow definition of what it means to be naked. That said, ‘naturism’ seems to incorporate a variety of views and in a world where a second skin of fabrics is the norm, it is great to have an organisation that allows people to get together and visit places without clothes, like the Wellcome Collection, that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. After all, it has been said that nakedness allows us to transcend our everyday material concerns; altering our state of consciousness and facilitating a new way of experiencing our environment. This sounds pretty invaluable to me as well as very much in keeping with the spirit of the ‘Skin’ exhibition.
Admittedly, the tour almost became more about being naked than about the exhibits but this proved an equally valid and innovative way to encourage our visitors to think about skin. We’ve also had some great feedback from people on the tour who hadn’t been to the Wellcome Collection before and are keen to return and explore ‘Skin’ further with their own skin once again under wraps.
Elizabeth Baddeley and Natalie Coe are Visitor Services Assistants at Wellcome Collection. The next tour in the Perspectives series is on 16 September with Dr Brian Morgan, a retired plastic and reconstructive surgeon. Artist Rhian Solomon’s postponed Perspectives tour of ‘Skin’ will take place at a later date; please see our full tours listing for further details on this and other regular tours.