Being Human Captions

Being Human

This gallery explores how we think and feel about ourselves, our bodies and our relationship with the world around us. Our understanding of what it means to be human is being transformed: by new research, our own experiences and those of other people. In this shifting landscape, who do we trust? Whose voices are heard? How do we see ourselves – and each other?

The objects here are grouped around themes of genetics, minds and bodies, infection and environmental breakdown. They highlight diverse perspectives and overlapping identities: disabled people, artists, activists, scientists. We are all unique, but we are also all connected, living in a shared world.

Being Human illuminated letters

Jochen Holz and Kellenberger–White

Handblown borosilicate glass containing helium, 2019

Designers Kellenberger–White worked with artist Jochen Holz to create letterforms that evoke organic forms and a human touch. These hand-blown letters are made with thick amber glass. Their fluffy glow comes from helium rather than neon, the gas more usually associated with title signs. This sets off the gentle irregularities of the coloured glass, making visible the artist’s handiwork.

1 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Genetics

Our genetic code, or genome, is the blueprint of life. It provides instructions that shape every cell in the body. Revolutionary advances in research are transforming our understanding of how our bodies are made and why diseases occur. Genome editing, the ability to make precise changes to tiny sections of the genome, is opening up the hope of innovative medical treatments.

As so much seems possible, the objects in this section explore our hopes and fears about this knowledge. How much do we want to know or share about our own genetic identity?

Medical Heirlooms

Acne; Osteoporosis; Cancer; Psoriasis; Ichthyosis

Tamsin van Essen

Slip cast ceramic apothecary jars, 2007-11

The surfaces and shapes of these jars each suggest a different health condition that can be inherited: the spots of acne, the brittle bones of osteoporosis, the rapid cell division of cancer or the flaky skin of psoriasis or ichthyosis. Just as we might inherit the family’s antique vase, so too might we inherit these ‘medical heirlooms’.

2 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Remembering Henrietta Lacks

Glass vial, 2019

Hand blown by Jochen Holz

With thanks to the Lacks family

This image depicts Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cancer cells transformed medical research, saving countless lives. The vial contains some of Lacks’s cells, which were immortal due to a genetic mutation and continued to divide outside her body. Given the name the HeLa cell line, they were originally cultivated without the knowledge of Lacks or her family. Lacks’s story raises important questions about consent, privacy and our relationship to our complex genetic inheritance.

3 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

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Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Single channel video, 2018, 9m 4s

This film explores a semi-fictional relationship between a biohacker and their subject.

4 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Stranger Visions

Heather Dewey-Hagborg

3D print, 2012-13

To make this imaginary portrait, Dewey-Hagborg sequenced the DNA from discarded cigarette butts, hair and gum to find genetic markers that influence physical appearance. Her portrait is deliberately fictional: genetics alone cannot reveal exactly what we look like. However, the artwork explores issues of privacy and our expectations of what is possible from genetics.

5 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

MinION Gene Sequencer

Oxford Nanopore Technologies

Commercially available product with visualisation of DNA sequencing

This is the first ultraportable genetic sequencer to be used in NHS hospitals. Identifying viruses and bacteria from their genetic material means patients receive the right treatment quicker. This can help hospitals to find the source of infections such as MRSA. Portable sequencers also allow scientists to conduct research in remote locations, such as the Ecuadorean rainforest or the International Space Station.

6 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR Kit

The Odin

Commercially available product

Biohacking collective The Odin sell this kit, which enables purchasers to use a technique called CRISPR to edit DNA. The kit, which is sent by post, claims to contain everything needed for CRISPR editing, including E.coli bacteria. Kits like this one raise questions: as science moves outside the laboratory and becomes more accessible, who do we trust? How comfortable are we with this freedom?

7 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Minds and Bodies

We are all unique: in our bodies, our minds and our identities. Despite being so diverse, we sometimes depict one body-shape or way of thinking as being ‘normal’, even though few of us would describe ourselves in this way.

What do we see when we look at ourselves or at other people? Why do we sometimes act as if we value some lives more than others? The works in this section explore these preconceptions and their consequences. Together, they challenge assumptions about disability and difference.

Tilley and Del’s ‘Pigspective’ TourTilley Milburn, Del the Piggie and Ben Connors

With thanks to Heart n Soul

In this comic, Tilley and Del the Piggie design the perfect museum and take you on a tour. This is one of a series of comics they have made with Ben Connors, exploring their experience of the world.

9 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Dignity

Dolly Sen

Cardboard packaging, 2018

The labelling of this pill packet draws attention to what the artist feels is missing in the way mental difference is treated: “dignity”, which “cannot be taken four times a day”. In Sen’s words:

Being labelled, pathologised and medicated,

I cannot claim my mind for myself

I cannot claim my life for myself

So how can I even have dignity?

10 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Help the Normals

Dolly Sen

Plastic collecting tin and sticker, 2018

Originally used in a performance, this mock collecting tin challenges preconceptions about mental difference. Here, it is “the normals” who are in need of help – and pity.

11 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Accessible Icon

Brian Glenney, Sara Hendren and Tim Ferguson Sauder

Stencilled on metal parking sign

Design activists Brian Glenney, Sara Hendren and Tim Ferguson Saunder were unimpressed by how passive the wheelchair user looked in most symbols for accessibility. Instead, they created their own icon and stickered accessibility signs across Boston, USA, as an act of protest. They released their symbol free of charge and it is now used throughout the world, including at Wellcome Collection.

12 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Pity

Katherine Araniello

Video, 2013, 2m 40s

Soundtrack written and performed by Araniello. Originally performed at the Lock-up Performance Art Fête, June 2013.

Meet the Superhuman

Katherine Araniello

Video, 2012, 1 m 34 s

13 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Visible Man

Video, 1997, 2m 53s

From Sick! The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Directed by Kirby Dick and presented by Bob Flanagan

Courtesy of The BFI National Archive

Artist Bob Flanagan creates a model of a transparent man, responding to his own experience of cystic fibrosis. This work contains sexually explicit language.

14 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Transparent Woman (Anatomical Figure)

Unknown designer

Plastic, wire, c.1980 (restored in 2006)

Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden

Press the buttons on this 1980s anatomical model to see different organs light up around the body. The aim is to teach anatomy but such figures can also reinforce ideas about what is ‘normal’. There is no scope in a single model to represent differences – this is a generic ‘woman’ rather than an individual.

15 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Austerity Cu ts

Anonymous Artist

Audio performance, 6m 16s, 2019

This audio artwork responds to the system of assessments that many disabled people face when applying for financial support.

Listen on a handset.

16 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Oh My Gosh, You’re Wellcome... Kitten

the vacuum cleaner with muf architecture/art

With thanks to GOSH Arts, Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity and Paul Hamlyn Foundation

Installation, 2019

Over 6 months, 15 young people with staff from the Mildred Creak Unit, Great Ormond Street Hospital, imagined how different experiences and environments could support healthy minds. In this installation they ask you to imagine a place that would create better mental health for us all.

17 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Latai Taumoepeau

Deborah Kelly and collaborators

Collaged photograph, 2014-18

From No Human Being is Illegal (in all our glory)

This portrait comes from a series created collaboratively in open workshops over many months. Participants collaged each image to reflect the subject’s identity, concerns, dreams or life story. Latai Taumoepeau wanted her portrait to highlight the effects of climate change on small island nations: rising sea levels, severe weather and the threat of exile. In her words: “Some of our people refuse to leave their sovereignty and the bones of their ancestors”.

18 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Advertisement: Homage to Benglis

Cassils

C-type print, 2011

From Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture

Cassils gained 23 pounds of muscle in 23 weeks for their performance Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture. In their words, the title “showcases the cut of musculature as opposed to the cut of the surgeon”. The work references feminist artist Eleanor Antin’s crash-dieting performance Carving, and Lynda Benglis’s sexually-explicit Advertisement. Like Benglis, Cassils distributed this self-empowered trans pin-up image in magazines and online.

19 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Everything is OK (beach)

Antoine Catala

Wood, foam, pump, silicon, 2017

The appearing and disappearing text make this slogan seem fragile. Perhaps instead of being confident that “everything is okay”, we start to question it. When young, Catala found it difficult to read emotions and his work often explores the potential for misunderstanding in a digital world. This piece invites questions: what are we really feeling? And how fixed are those states of mind?

20 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Friendship Bench

Wooden bench, audio on earphone, 5m 30s

Friendship Bench was a grassroots project in Zimbabwe that used everyday language to help people explore mental health problems. Founder Dixon Chibanda worked with volunteers and local health workers to define and treat conditions such as “Kufungisisa”, or “thinking too much”. They used conversations on benches like this one to make care accessible to all.

Pick up an audio handset to listen.

21 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Prosthetics

With thanks to Wellcome’s Disability Network

Most of us at some time in our life will use a prosthetic: something worn on or inside the body that helps with a particular function. People view their prosthetics differently: for some, what starts as a prosthetic becomes part of their body whereas for others, it is a tool or fashion accessory. These objects have been collected with the help of Wellcome staff and represent a wide range of health experiences. The owners describe their thoughts and feelings about their prosthetic.

22 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Hearing aid

Naoise

Wearing it feels kind of like a tacky kind of gum in your ear. And, it feels like a little pencil behind your ear for the machine and battery. Sometimes I had an FM radio device attached to it which projected my teacher’s voice directly into my ear. Everything sounds kinda like a robot when I wear it – I hate it!!

22 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Prosthetic breasts

Lynn

With additional thanks to Jane

The first one you wear is known as a ‘comfy’ and it’s just a bit of wadding in a pouch, very light weight. You soon realise, however, that one does not cover all eventualities. It is a bit like trying on shoes, you try various types to see which is best for you. When travelling I was always afraid of damaging or losing my boob so carried a spare, usually a beanie bag one.

22 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Dyslexia glasses

Meghan

When I wear these orange specs I read faster, my eyes/brain experiences far less visual fatigue, and I’d argue that I’m able to recollect what I’ve read differently – more vividly and lucidly. Being fitted with them took almost two hours of testing but finding the initial colour felt quite natural – there was an immediate sense of relief reading text with a warmly toned background.

22 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

CPAP hat and oxygen mask

Fiona

My twins were born early at 32 weeks. My daughter needed continuous positive airway pressure (or CPAP) for oxygen and this is one of her nasal masks and the specially-made hat to hold CPAP tubings in place. Parents couldn’t “room in” at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), so we found ourselves collecting medical detritus, including this mask, to take something home with us.

22 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Prosthetic leg

Harry

This knee was given to me in 2010, a few months after I was injured in Afghanistan. I’d been on a mechanical knee and the added security and stability this microprocessor model gave me was instant. It made life easier, meant I could walk down stairs and carry things. If I tripped, it would sense that the knee was collapsing and resist the fall. It felt very sci-fi but it seems dated now.

22 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Glasses

Georgia

These are my daughter Rita’s first glasses from when she was 3 years old. She chose them and always loved them. In her early years, her undiagnosed long sightedness probably shaped her daring approach to life. These glasses are brilliantly lightweight and bendy so they have never held her back. The head strap was important because she moves at speed.

22 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Glasses with hearing aid

Tom

These glasses are very much my Dad. His deafness was a defining feature of his personality and by extension his glasses became part of him. The design improved over the years but they were all fundamentally odd and slightly awkward, which I think he secretly liked. They were both much more visible than a regular hearing aid and at the same time not – he liked that.

22 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Infection

Most of the time, we live in harmony with bacteria. On our skin and in our gut, they contribute to our immune system, helping to keep us healthy. However, some bacteria and viruses are hazardous, causing infection.

These objects explore how we react to this threat. What decisions do we make to keep ourselves healthy? What do we see as being dangerous – and are these fears justified? How do our thoughts and feelings about infection change our relationships with one another?

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Tasha Marks of AVM Curiosities

Bronze and perfume, 2019

With thanks to Robert Erskine, Lindsay Hall, CPL Aromas and the Hearts Milk Bank

Designed to evoke the smell of human breast milk, this scented sculpture celebrates bifidobacteria. Transferred from mother to child and nurtured through breastfeeding, this bacterium is found in babies’ digestive systems and aids the breakdown of sugars in breast milk. This sculpture is a playful tribute, designed to be touched and smelled. Upside down, the title spells “boobies”.

23 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Magic Circle Variation

Rogan Brown

Laser cut paper, 2018

Bacteria are around us and inside us: a teeming ecosystem which, together with viruses and fungi, makes up our microbiome. Made from paper, Rogan Brown’s intricate sculpture imagines what it might be like for us to see such a microbial community close-up: a kaleidoscope of repeating patterns and natural forms. Here, we are invited to wonder at this complex hidden world.

24 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

The Evolution of Bacteria on a ‘Mega Plate’ Petri Dish

Kishony Lab, Harvard Medical School and Technion – Israel Institute of TechnologyM. Baym, T. D. Lieberman, E. D. Kelsic, R. Chait, R. Gross, I. Yelin, R. Kishony, Science (2016)

Video, 2016, 1m 54s Narrated by Michael Baym and edited by Rick Groleau

This short video shows E.coli bacteria, which can cause diarrhoea, evolving through different concentrations of antibiotic to develop antibiotic resistance.

25 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Faecal Transplant Kit

Commercially available products

This is everything needed for a faecal transplant: where poo from a healthy person is swallowed or inserted into the gut to increase the variety of bacteria. Faecal transplant is used medically to treat antibiotic resistant Clostridioides difficile (C.diff), which can cause deadly diarrhoea. But unscreened transplants can be dangerous, potentially carrying disease, and may have other side effects such as influencing weight gain.

26 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Vaccine Confidence Cascade

Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick

With thanks to the Vaccine Confidence Project

Information Graphic, 2019

Vaccines are one of the most effective health interventions of all time and have saved countless lives. Despite clear evidence of effectiveness and safety, however, many people are hesitant to vaccinate their own children. This installation explores the ways in which governmental communications, news stories, social media and rumour in Japan affected trust in the HPV vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer.

27 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

PPE Project

Mary Beth Heffernan

Digital prints, mannequin, personal protective equipment (PPE) following protocol developed by Public Health England, the National Ambulance Resilience Unit, and the Ministry of Defence, 2015

Hazmat suits offer essential protection for health workers, but their faceless appearance can be frightening. In the 2015-16 West African Ebola epidemic, many carers humanised their suits by writing or drawing on them. Artist Mary Beth Heffernan produced stickered portraits for two treatment centres, to show patients what their carers looked like. This reassured patients, reducing the trauma of being kept in isolation.

The coronavirus pandemic has made us all aware of the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE), from society’s use of face-masks to the 3D-printed visors crowdsourced for healthcare workers facing equipment shortages. In summer 2020 Mary Beth Heffernan continued her work with US hospitals, providing staff in Covid-19 treatment areas with photo-portrait stickers for their PPE. Showing the smiling face behind the mask offered a simple, humanising way to connect with patients experiencing a very frightening situation

28 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

JukeboxKin

With glass sculpture by Bethan Laura Wood in collaboration with Pietro Viero

This jukebox contains songs from across the world that relate to illnesses, health experiences and epidemics, including AIDs, Ebola and Covid-19. Some were part of campaigns sponsored by governments or health agencies while others were more spontaneous creative responses. Move the slider to play a song.

29 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Blood Objects

Basse Stittgen

Plasticised HIV positive blood, 2019

With thanks to Positively UK

Designed to be held in the palm of the hand, these small objects are made entirely from HIV positive blood. Each has been created from the blood of one volunteer and is made from the amount of blood that would be given in a single donation. Pick up an audio handset to hear the stories of each donor.

30 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Eleven

Kia LaBeija

Digital C-Print, 2014

From 24

Here, LaBeija’s prom dress and regal pose capture her defiant attitude. LaBeija was born with HIV before new medication offered a normal lifespan. She and her mother attended this doctor’s office and this image marks the eleventh anniversary of her mother’s death. In LaBeija’s words, “Transforming it into art is one way to shake myself free, to show that painful things can also be beautiful.”

31 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Environmental Breakdown

Why do we find it so hard to act on the devastating consequences of climate breakdown? The effects are everywhere: rising global temperatures, strange weather patterns, impacts on plants, animals, insects and human health.

The works in this section explore our relationship with the world around us in this time of global transformation. Some objects focus on the signs of change while others look to possible futures. How will we react to what is being lost? And how will we adapt and thrive in a radically changed world?

Refugee Astronaut III

Yinka Shonibare CBE

Fibreglass mannequin, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, net, possessions, astronaut helmet, moon boots, 2019

Dressed in an elaborate spacesuit, the monumental figure of Shonibare’s Refugee Astronaut contrasts with their hastily-gathered net of possessions. Who are they? What has caused their hurried flight? The title suggests that this is a forced exile, an act of desperation rather than confident galactic exploration. As environmental breakdown displaces populations, how many of us will become refugees?

32 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Flooded McDonald’s

Superflex

Film, 2009, 21m

A replica model of a fast food restaurant built by the artists slowly floods. The only sound is that of the slowly rising water.

33 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Too

Adam Chodzko

Found 35mm non-professional photography slides including dust from the Pantheon and Euston station concourse, 2019

These images seem to be an album of environmental disaster, depicting fires, floods, earthquakes and high winds from different times and places. Chodzko collected these slides and dropped them at the Pantheon, Rome, and at Euston station, London, before printing them. The resulting marks give the images a sense of immediacy and urgency, as if they have been dropped by a frantically hurrying lecturer.

34 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Untitled (Tree Study)

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun

Ink on board, 2017

Yuxweluptun has described his work as “a form of political activism, a way to exercise my inherent right, my right to authority, my freedom”. This image comes from a series of tree studies, protesting logging in British Columbia. The clouds and leaves of the tree have been created with the ovoid and U shapes of the Northwest Coast formline artistic tradition.

35 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Recipe for Potable Water

Allie Wist

Glass bowls, clingfilm, concrete, sea water, 2017

Domestic objects and a lump of concrete taken from an area affected by Hurricane Sandy are here turned into a simple desalination device. Water in the outer bowl evaporates, hits the clingfilm and condenses, causing distilled water to run into the central bowl. The improvised nature of this device raises questions about what we might have to do to survive.

37 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Un Monde Sous Pression (The World Under Pressure)

Batoul S’Himi

Stainless steel gas cylinders and pressure cooker, 2012-14

Common yet dangerous objects in Moroccan kitchens, these gas cylinders and pressure cooker are carved with a map of the world. Here, global anxiety intrudes into the home. The artist’s use of domestic objects hints at the unequal burden of climate breakdown, hitting vulnerable people hardest, including women and children. But perhaps there is also hope, as families start to recognise their global impact.

38 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

ICARDA seeds from Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Seeds from Syria, 2019

With thanks to ICARDA and NordGen

These packets contain Syrian seeds conserved at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault from the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). The vault aims to protect biodiversity in crop plants and stores duplicates of seeds from gene banks around the world. In 2015, ICARDA made the first ever withdrawal as war made the international gene banks in Aleppo, Syria, inaccessible.

39 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

London Freedom Seed Bank

Seeds: Calaloo ‘Latte’, Corn ‘Fiesta’, Lettuce ‘Bloody Marvel’, 2019

These are local seed varieties from the London Freedom Seed Bank. This community seedbank aims to give people the skills to save seed, while building up a living collection of London seeds. It encourages seed saving as part of the fight against climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. These seeds reflect London’s diverse heritage, originating in Pakistan, Central America and Syria respectively.

40 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.

Water Is Life

Isaac Murdoch

Linen banner, 2016

Murdoch created this banner to protest attempts to lay oil pipelines through Native American territory, potentially polluting rivers. Murdoch is part of the Onaman Collective, a group of indigenous artists and environmentalists. He carried this banner at protests at Standing Rock, USA, and released the digital image free for use in political action to defend water and land.

41 BSL interpretation and audio description are available on the audio and multimedia guide.