Object of the month: Cowrie Snuff Box

This month’s object can be seen in our latest exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, until 12 October. Found under X is for X-rated, this cowrie shell snuff box features an erotic scene. Even cowrie shells themselves used be known as “Venus shells” because of their resemblance to female genitalia. Taryn Cain tells us about the rise and fall of snuff and how its popularity resulted in the variety of the boxes used to hold it.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

We all know members of the 20% of the population who still light up a cigarette, despite the many warnings. Since smoking is considered a serious health risk today, it’s hard to imagine that only 300 years ago tobacco was seen as a health product with cigarettes only becoming a social norm around 1880.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

1714 was a year of change: it was the year of Queen Anne’s death, and saw the war of the Spanish Succession coming to an end. England was already familiar with tobacco, though its use was restricted to small pockets of the population.  Charles II was quite fond of snuff, a ground and perfumed tobacco, introducing it to his court in 1660. In 1665 the College of Physicians declared the smoking of tobacco a cure for the plague; a risky tonic to take considering matches were not to be invented for another 160 years.

Despite its regal and apparent medicinal properties, tobacco needed another three decades to finally gain in popularity. In 1702 the Allied Naval forces delivered to England at least 50,000 pounds of snuff taken from the Spanish treasure fleet, which soon elevated its use to a social necessity. From then on no gentleman would be seen in public without his snuff and many ladies were keen to indulge too.

A gentleman visitor offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

A gentleman offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

This avid use of snuff predictably birthed a new fashion accessory: the snuff box. Originally a small, hinged box to protect the quality of the snuff, it quickly became a fashion statement. In 1781 it was written that a well-dressed man should have a different snuff box for every day of the year, advice some genteel men took literally to heart. Popular dandy, Lord Petersham, would only use each snuff box once in 12 months, while George IV owned 700: one for every day and evening. Visit Wellcome Images to see a selection of historic snuff boxes.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, snuff boxes became more personal. Erotic images began to appear on the insides of the boxes, either openly or hidden in secret cavities. Most showed a couple engaged in sexual activity, but nudes were also popular; generally a mistress or sometimes a wife. Occasionally the images were even accompanied by music.

Though the keeping of erotica was a private matter, Henry Wellcome managed to acquire one of these lewd items to add to his collection, allowing us to have it on display in the museum today. Snuff boxes were generally made of fine materials, such as porcelain and tortoiseshell; ours is no exception, being a cowrie shell and silver creation. The image inside is of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt. For a long time chastity belts were believed to have originated in the Middle Ages as a means for men to control their wife’s sexuality. We now know they were an 18th century invention which, if used at all, were more likely to prevent sexual assault than protect a lady’s fidelity.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman's chastity belt.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt.

Cowrie shells come from cowries, a diverse species of nocturnal marine snails living in tropical environments, feasting on algae, corals and sponges. The shell in our collection came from a humpback cowrie, which can be found in shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific. Both the inside and the outside of cowrie shells have a beautifully polished appearance due to a layer of calcium carbonate crystals secreted by the mantle; it was this porcelain-like exterior which ensured the cowries would never have a peaceful life. Like tobacco, cowries have had a long history with humans, being used variously for medicine, divination, fertility and, primarily, as money.

As currency, cowrie shells are one of the oldest in the world, at times being more valuable than gold. They were first used in China during the 2nd century and were still being used in Africa during the 19th century. They were an ideal choice for money, being consistent in shape, difficult to obtain in inland areas, easily transportable and, crucially, difficult to forge. While mostly used as currency in Africa and Asia, Europe began trading cowrie shells in the 15th century to obtain slaves for the slave trade. The use of shells was eventually overtaken by metal currency.

By the 19th century snuff began to fall out of favour as interest in cigars grew. After the death of George IV in 1830 the demand for imported cigars had grown massively, while matches and hand rolled cigarettes were increasingly available. As the Victorian era began, snuff boxes bore the brunt of the changing market. Many of them became obsolete short of becoming a collector’s item. Erotic snuff boxes suffered most of all due to strict Victorian morals, with few avoiding destruction by embarrassed families. It was said that George IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, melted down most of his enormous collection in order to make more socially acceptable jewellery for herself.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: Shrunken Heads (real and fake)

As part of our development project, the tsantsa (or, shrunken head) normally on display in Medicine Man is in storage. Our replica tsantsa, however, which forms part of our cross-gallery handling collection, can still be seen. This month Charlie Morgan delves into the history and controversy of this erstwhile cultural practice. N.b. although this series is called Object of the Month, real tsantsas are comprised of human remains and we in no way mean to dehumanise them.

Shrunken head, Shuar

Shrunken head, Shuar

At some point in the mid-16th century, Spanish Conquistadors entered the Amazon rainforest and came into contact with the Shuar people. In the epic colonisation of Latin America, one more indigenous group would not have made much of an impact if it had it not been for two factors: gold and tsantsas. To gain the former, the Spanish Empire tore up its initial peace agreements and subjugated the Shuar in a brutal mining system. In 1599, The Shuar – amongst other tribes – revolted against the Spanish, sacked their towns and – as the story goes – to satisfy the insatiable lust of the Spanish governor, poured molten gold down his throat. The area never again came under complete colonial control.

To obtain tsantsas, subsequent expansionists took a different approach. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, collectors would routinely arrive in the borderlands of Ecuador and Peru, laden with money, weapons or both, dead-set on exchange. Europeans and Americans might by that time have grown to fear the Shuar, but they were still utterly obsessed with shrunken heads.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

Despite that fact that tsantsas have only ever been produced by the Shuar people, it is often assumed that head shrinking was, and is, a globally ubiquitous phenomenon of indigenous groups: Papua New Guinea and parts of Africa being oft-ventured guesses. Yet aside from re-thinking our assumptions of where they might be made, it’s also important to consider the why.

The Spanish colonialists assumed the Shuar were a very warlike people’ because of the 1599 revolt and because they shrunk human heads – both, apparently, for no particular reason. However, while we now know the first was a legitimate act of anti-colonial resistance, we also know that the second was done for a very specific purpose.

Central to historic Shuar belief systems is an adherence to the idea of multiple, yet interlinking, souls, and one of the most powerful is the vengeful soul. Traditionally, if someone were to be killed in battle, the greatest fear of the murderer would be that the dead person’s soul could wreak havoc upon them from the afterlife; in order to prevent this happening the soul would have to be trapped. As the Shuar believed that the soul resides within the head, the best way to do this was to shrink it. Click here to read about the head shrinking process.

While head shrinking may be a unique trait of Shuar history, heads have been removed from foes in numerous places and in most cases they have been prominently displayed. At the Tower of London, heads of executed traitors were rammed onto spikes and in medieval Japan those removed by Samurai would be treated similarly. Not so with tsantsas.

Shrunken heads were produced to trap souls; once done, the soul had no way of escaping. The crucial part was not the end product but rather the process. As such, despite the fact that some heads would be paraded at feasts and hung up on display, others would be thrown away or even given to children to play with. In reality, a tsasnta only attained value as an object in itself when, akin to gold, it was integrated into the global networks of modern capitalism.

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Henry Wellcome obtained the shrunken head normally displayed in Medicine Man from the Stevens Auction Room in 1925. It cost £25 but it’s entirely possible that wasn’t just for the head: Stevens was well known to bundle objects together if he knew Wellcome was interested. He would then hike up the price as far as he could. How the head got to the auction in the first place we don’t know, but by the end of the 19th century the Euro-American lust for tsantsas was so extreme that more were being produced for trade than for the trapping of souls. Collectors would trade guns for heads and the guns would create heads to be traded for guns. For those that try to explain indigenous practice through colonial ideas of ‘modernity’ vs. ‘backwardness’, this is problematic because if head shrinking was a ‘backward’ practice it was far more escalated by ‘modernity’ than limited by it.

There is one final caveat. While the collecting of tsantsas was often very destructive it would be a mistake to see the Shuar as just passive victims. One aspect of the trade can be better explained by our replica tsantsa than by the real one. The shrunken head in our handling collection is made out of animal skin but is otherwise produced in exactly the same way that a human one would be (and looks remarkably similar). At the height of 19th century trade, wealthy collectors would often purchase tsantsas and put them on display, unaware that what they had been sold was made of animal skin. It’s estimated that this applies to 80% of all shrunken heads ever displayed. Like most objects in Wellcome Collection, the tsantsa tells more than one story.

Charlie is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: After Image

As we continue on our curious journey, most of Medicine Now remains open as (un)usual. Charlie Morgan takes a look at one of its objects on display, Alexa Wright’s photograph After Image, as April’s Object of the Month.

Alexa Wright, After Image, 1997

Alexa Wright, After Image, 1997

Most people reading this blog will have two arms and two legs. However, the average (here recall your school maths) may well be somewhere just below two of each. Losing a limb through accident or deliberate amputation is uncommon but it is certainly not rare. Taking surgical amputations as an example, five to six thousand operations are carried out in the UK every year – and, notably, about nine out of every ten of them will result in phantom limb syndrome.

A phantom limb is a slightly ghoulish term that’s used to refer to the sensation that an amputated limb is still there. The feelings that result range from mild tickling to intense pain. In Medicine Now a photograph by Alexa Wright shows a disfigured and odd-looking arm extending from just above the elbow of a seated woman, but the arm itself is not real; it’s the visualisation of a phantom limb. The woman (who did not attach her name to the photograph) was in a devastating car crash nine years before the photograph was taken and as a result had her left arm amputated. Like most amputees she subsequently suffered from phantom limb syndrome. Yet despite the discomfort and pain of this, she does give us a perhaps unexpected perspective: “I wasn’t born like this and obviously I do miss my arm, yet sometimes the phantom pain makes me feel whole again.”

Historically, work on phantom limbs has been hamstrung by a lack of knowledge of what causes them. The phenomenon was for a long time thought to be a psychological one, but scientists now suggest it may originate in the brain and spinal cord. My lack of scientific knowledge prevents me from delving too deeply into this and so I want to focus on a different side of the story: the way rehabilitation has been limited.

For years the solution to phantom limbs was thought to be medication, medication, medication; on the whole this had marginal results. Yet if you speak to a Visitor Experience Assistant in Medicine Now or if you are visiting when an object handling session is taking place you might well get the chance to see our mirror box. A mirror box is what you might call a Ronseal-type object – it is a box with a mirror stuck on the side.

For individuals with four limbs it can be used to demonstrate the disjunction that can occur between what the eyes see and what the brain experiences but for people with phantom limbs it can be a very effective form of pain relief. By essentially tricking the brain, the reflection of the one remaining arm or leg can be perceived as that which is missing and the body’s ‘need’ for its absent limb can be realised. Similar work can be done with prosthetic hands or virtual technology.

The photograph taken by Alexa Wright is one of a series of 24 and they can all be seen on her website. In each, you can see the individual with their missing arm or leg and also with their phantom limb. The photographs are humanising and shed some light on one of the many medical conundrums that we still have no complete answer to. Despite the grand narratives and concepts of medical science that we often defer to, the experience of the individual is still paramount.

 Charlie is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Future)

This is the last of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. If you have visited us over the past seven months you may have noticed that, although we are open as (un)usual, the building doesn’t quite look like itself. Our gorgeous neoclassic building is undergoing a few transformations to accommodate more exhibitions, events and visitors. The full unveiling will be this autumn and, to tide you over, Muriel Bailly talks us through what’s changing.

Our development project is being carried out by Stirling Prize-winning architects Wilkinson Eyre. We are increasing the space available to the public by transforming storage and office areas. Here is the architect’s vision for the building:

© Wilkinson Eyre Architects

© Wilkinson Eyre Architects

The first thing that probably caught your attention is the dramatic spiral staircase (highlighted green in the image above) starting on the ground floor and rising all the way up to level 2, leading directly to a new version of the library’s Reading Room and our new restaurant, Wellcome Kitchen. To those who enjoy our Wellcome Café, don’t worry: the café will be staying too. On level 1, our permanent collections Medicine Now and (the thoroughly missed) Medicine Man will fully reopen. They’ll have a slightly different layout but still contain all your favourite objects. The first floor will also welcome a brand new gallery space opposite Medicine Now, which will be an exhibition space allowing for year-long thematic shows. Our Youth Programme team, who work with local youth groups on some amazing creative responses to our collections, will have their very own studio on the first floor acting as their creative cauldron.

Here’s a sneak peek of what’s happening behind the scenes:

The entire development project will be finished by the end of autumn 2014 but different bits and pieces will reopen as they are completed. Some new spaces have already been finished and can be enjoyed by our visitors. For example, new spaces in the library were revealed to the public recently: a new staircase connecting levels 2 and 3 and a much larger rare materials room.

Wellcome Library Rare Material Room before/after ©Wellcome Library

Wellcome Library’s rare materials room before/after ©Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Collection Development Project is well underway. Here are some milestones to look forward to as work continues over the next few months. Please note that our timescales have to be quite loose in able to prepare for any minor delays that may occur.

2014

  • Spring
    • Medicine Man will reopen, likely to be around mid-May
    • Exhibition gallery on the ground floor reopening for our Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Object exhibition in May
  • Summer
    • Restaurant on level 2 opens
  • Autumn
    • Youth Studio opening
    • new exhibition gallery on level 1 opens
    • Reading Room on level 2 opens

The development project is due to be complete at the start of October and everyone will be invited to come and explore all the new spaces.

For now though, just watch this space!

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Present)

This is the second of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the very building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. This is particularly fitting as today’s #MuseumWeek theme is about the buildings #BehindTheArt. Alyson Mercer looks at the post-Henry Wellcome era to chart the developments relating to Wellcome’s collection and examine how 183 Euston Road has evolved into the establishment it is today.

We last left our story with the death of Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936 and the Wellcome Foundation subsequently facing a restructure. It was decided in the year following Henry’s death that the budget was to be cut for Wellcome’s beloved Historical Medical Museum, with the newly established Wellcome trustees recommending that it focus solely on the history of medicine as opposed to the Museum of Mankind Wellcome had envisaged. Meanwhile, the Second World War had nearly arrived at the nation’s doorstep and the staff at the Wellcome Research Institute (as it was then known), worked indefatigably to prepare the museum for reopening alongside the magnificent Hall of Statuary.

The Wellcome Research Institution's building, Euston Road, London: the Hall of Statuary of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum as arranged in the 1930s

The Wellcome Research Institution’s building, Euston Road, London: the Hall of Statuary of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum as arranged in the 1930s

By 1939, work was complete on nine reconstructions of historic pharmacies which had been mounted as part of the proposed permanent exhibitions within the new remit of the museum (see image below). In the years that followed, large swathes of the area surrounding the building on Euston Road were bombed. The Wellcome Research Institute did not escape unscathed: nearby Gower Place was hit, resulting in the building and some artefacts sustaining damage. The Wellcome Research Institute building was structurally sound and was returned to its former glory following some repairs.

Looking through the Primitive Medicine Gallery of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1939.

Looking through the Primitive Medicine Gallery of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1939.

In 1946, the Wellcome Historical Medical Library was finally ready to be opened and readers were able to utilise a converted Hall of Statuary as a reading room. Not long after the Library had settled into its new location, the decision was taken to make 183 Euston Road into the official headquarters of Burroughs Wellcome & Co, forcing a nearly complete museum to be packed up once more and consigned to storage, this time at Portman Square. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Historical Medical Museum began to be reassembled in the building on Euston Road where it remained (in a reduced form) until the late 1970s. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, much of what continued to exist of Henry’s enormous object collection was transferred to the Science Museum in London, where it would form the basis of two permanent public galleries (first opened in 1980) and where the Wellcome Wing was later established in 2000.

The Reading Room in 1962.

The Reading Room in 1962.

Until the turn of the 21st century, various projects pulled the focus away from the exhibition of Wellcome’s collection on Euston Road. While the cataloguing of Henry’s numerous objects continued, as well as the mounting of several successful temporary exhibitions, the focus of the building was in large part influenced by the growth of the Wellcome Library. During the 1970s, a diploma in the history of medicine was established, as was a new collaboration with University College London to create a joint academic unit known as the Wellcome Institute.

In 2007, Wellcome Collection opened as a free destination for the incurably curious. Permanent galleries saw a small selection of around 300 objects from Henry Wellcome’s collection make up the Medicine Man exhibition, while the exploration of scientific innovation and advancement through the experiences of doctors, patients and contemporary artists formed the Medicine Now gallery. Along with a busy programme of temporary exhibitions hosted over the past 7 years and with the Wellcome Library busier than ever, 183 Euston Road has certainly come a long way from its rather inauspicious roots!

A group of schoolchildren in our Medicine Man gallery.

A group of schoolchildren in our Medicine Man gallery.

Alas, this institutional history really only tells part of the story of this magnificent building. We on the Visitor Services team have also been privy to viewing the very heart of human nature laid bare in our exhibition spaces since the museum was refurbished in 2007. We have watched couples endure rather painful public breakups and have also interrupted some rather amorous liaisons. We’ve heard tales of exam stress and have awoken people who may have simply found the content of our exhibitions a bit too stimulating (perhaps absorbing knowledge through osmosis?).

The curious public at Wellcome Collection.

The curious public at Wellcome Collection.

The folklore associated with a building of a relatively long historical standing is fundamentally acquired through an accumulation of tales over a number of years. If you haven’t been able to stop in to see us recently, do keep an eye on how Wellcome Collection is changing, and be sure to think of the hidden history of the building the next time you indulge in your incurably curious nature by paying us a visit.

The final Object of the Month instalment looks to the future as our building at 183 Euston Road undergoes a few transformations to accommodate more exhibitions, events and visitors.

Alyson Mercer is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Past)

March’s Object of the Month could be said to be the biggest one so far, although it’s not really an object at all. This is the first of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the very building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. This is particularly fitting as today’s #MuseumWeek theme is about the buildings #BehindTheArt. Alyson Mercer examines the beginnings of the display of objects as an ensemble and the launch of Wellcome Collection’s home in our building on Euston Road.

The keen eyed amongst our loyal visitors will have noticed that the foundation stone for Wellcome Collection was laid on 25 November 1931. This is by no means the beginning of the story of how our collection came to be, but rather a turning point in the display of the Collection itself.

If you’ve recently visited us here at 183 Euston Road, you will have noticed that Wellcome Collection is changing. We often have visitors come in and share memories with our Visitor Services team of how the museum used to look, or ask to see exhibitions that are no longer on display. It’s fascinating to hear about the ways in which the building has played host to so many different people and objects over the past eight decades.

The display of Henry Wellcome’s collection (as a whole) relating to the history of medicine (as part of his lifelong ambition to create a museum of man) dates back to 1913. However, records show that Wellcome had previously displayed parts of his collection for the sole purpose of promoting his company. Through events like the ‘Annual Museum’, organised by the British Medical Association (BMA), and various trade exhibitions (including displays of artwork, decorative vases and allegorical sculpture to exude the desired theatrical effect for visitors to his trade display stand), Henry Wellcome and his staff were able to develop their expertise in creating popular, eye-catching exhibits over more than thirty years. They used a live sheep and a tank of living cod fish in the demonstration of lanolin soap and cod liver oil products at the 1896 annual meeting of the BMA. This type of exhibit at once achieved the desired effect of pleasing Wellcome himself, as well as drawing in and amazing an audience.

Burroughs Wellcome exhibit at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893. Wellcome, wearing a hat, is on the left.

Burroughs Wellcome exhibit at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893. Wellcome, wearing a hat, is on the left.

It was not until the Historical Medical Museum opened to coincide with the arrival of the International Medical Congress in London in June 1913 when Henry’s collection was able to shine on its own.  Located at 54a Wigmore Street West in what has been considered by some as London’s medical district, staff working for Wellcome devised a museum not intended for the public and limited admission only to those interested in the study of medical history.  “During the Congress, admission was restricted to members of the medical profession.  From 1914, members of the public were only admitted in organized groups or with a letter of introduction from a doctor, while women had to be accompanied by a medical man.” (An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World, F. Larson. 2009)

While the museum assisted in gaining Wellcome the academic credibility he worked so hard to achieve, he was not happy with the size or scope of his Wigmore Street establishment.  Determined to find a site more fitting of his growing collection and business notoriety during the 1920s, he settled upon a site in Euston Road which then contained the Bureau of Scientific Research and the Museum of Medical Science.  Both of these institutions were temporarily relocated and the site cleared to make way for the classical building designed by Septimus Warwick, which still stands today.

Wellcome Research Institute, 1932.

Wellcome Research Institute, 1932.

By 1932, the building works at 183 Euston Road were complete and while the Bureau of Scientific Research, the Chemical Research Laboratories and the Museum of Medical Science reoccupied the site, Wellcome’s own Historical Medical Museum was yet to relocate owing to a desire for Wellcome to rearrange its layout.  Unfortunately, Wellcome was never able to see the finished product of his decades of toil.  It was only four years after the Wellcome Research Institution was completed when its founder succumbed to bladder cancer.  Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome passed away on 25 July 1936 and his body was laid in state for several days in the auditorium of the institution he had worked so hard to create, and was watched over by some of the museum’s longest serving employees before his transfer to Golders Green Crematorium for an understated funeral service.

The next blog instalment will look at the post-Henry Wellcome era to chart the developments relating to Wellcome’s collection and examine how 183 Euston Road has evolved into the establishment it is today.

Alyson Mercer is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object(s) of the month: Origin and Fossil Necklace

Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Aside from sounding like the ramblings of a philosophy student at three in the morning these are the ever pertinent questions addressed by two artworks currently on display at Wellcome Collection. This month Charlie Morgan takes a look at how these objects may offer answers to those questions.

Regular visitors to Medicine Now will be familiar with Origin by Daniel Lee. The looped video shows an animated Coelacanth-type fish evolve through reptiles and primates into a modern human: the scales disappear, the tails get shorter and, eventually, the body stands upright. By using smooth linking manipulated photos as opposed to clunky still images we are able to experience evolution as a fluid process and not just as a series of isolated points throughout history. Four floors up and in our Foreign Bodies: Common Ground exhibition, another piece does something very similar.

Origin by Daniel Lee

Origin by Daniel Lee

Katie Paterson is an award-winning Scottish artist who for six months was in residence at the Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire. Here she became interested in genomic archaeology and after sourcing 170 different fossils (the oldest of which is a mere 3.5 billion years old) she had them carved into identically shaped beads and strung up on a necklace. The result is the first fashion accessory to document the history of life on earth and the first to ask the question “does my dinosaur stomach stone match my shoes?”

In Origin, the Coelacanth that starts the video emerged about 350-400 million years ago; in Fossil Necklace it would probably only appear about halfway down the right hand side. Fossil Necklace instead begins with the first single celled bacterial organisms to populate earth around 3.6 billion years ago. Since then, the earth and the living creatures that reside on it have developed, changed and evolved. As Katie Paterson notes, the only real links we have between them all is the DNA that the Sanger Institute studies and the fossils that she has collected.

Fossil Necklace by Katie Paterson

Fossil Necklace by Katie Paterson

While Fossil Necklace ends with the occurrence of written records approximately five thousand years ago, it also gives us a basis to pose questions about the future. Through Fossil Necklace we encounter five mass extinction events. These include the Late Devonian extinction which wiped out 75% of life on earth, but which was then topped by the aptly named ‘Great Dying’ and a whopping 95%. The most recent mass extinction was the most famous, the K/T extinction, which resulted in the death of the dinosaurs and a subsequent abundance of competing “whodunnit?” theories. 65 million years later and in an age of uncontested human dominance, a number of scientists are speculating a future – or, more accurately, an already underway – sixth extinction event: the Holocene extinction. We’ve already seen the death of the Dodo, the Auroch and the Mammoth to name but three amongst many, many others but it’s now estimated that “nearly 20,000 species of animals and plants around the globe are considered high risks for extinction in the wild”. How many of our present day creatures will soon just be fossils on a necklace?

Likewise Origin, by emphasising the various stages of human evolution (and as a result emphasising the ways in which those stages have adapted in order to survive), allows us to ask questions about what the future might hold for humanity. There is no shortage of theories; transhumanism anticipates a future merging of humanity with technology; a scientist has predicted we’ll soon be growing beaks; and one visitor to Foreign Bodies has suggested that the X-Men might be the most realistic prediction of future evolution. There is not much evidence to suggest humans are currently moving towards a new anatomical form or that we’ll soon be self-healing or shape shifting. Still, faced with constant fluctuations in the environment, climate and inhabitants of earth, both Fossil Necklace and Origin suggest we can be sure of one thing: something’s going to change.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and Foreign Bodies: Common Ground is on until 16th March.