Skin, at the Wellcome Trust

I have spent my evening examining magnified images of syphilis, psoriasis, vaginal infections and acne. And a mummified corpse from the 12th-15th century. It’s been eventful, not to mention an interesting exploration of my personal visual limits. The mummified corpse, I have found, represents my personal visual limit. An hour’s queasy bus journey home from this exhibition represents the downside of this finding.

The exhibition of which I speak is called ‘Skin’, occupies half the ground floor of the Wellcome Trust building on Euston Road and runs 10 June – 26 September 2010, so get in during the next few weeks if you’re intrigued.

There’s a lot to be intrigued by. Skin is our largest organ (2 metres square) but wasn’t recognised as an organ, or indeed as being very important at all, by science until relatively recently. The fascination of skin to a scientist is then obvious. But the fascination of skin from an arts or a design point of view is somewhat harder to pin down. Luckily the curators supplied this beautiful blurb to sum up the appeal, at the third part of the exhibition, entitled ‘impressions’:

“Skin is alive. Its sensory impressions allow us to interact with the world and to make sense of our individual or collective identities. Knowledge of who we are begins at the body’s surface. Itching, shivering, blushing, trembling and sweating are all natural functions of the skin, triggered by our interaction with the external world and with others. Unlike these automatic reactions, the sense of touch, and especially touching others, is a voluntary means of building evidence, a way to distinguish sensations from emotions, to guide medical examination and treatment, or simply to take care of ourselves.”

The exhibition also skims over the idea of buildings, and more obviously clothing, as supplementary skins we construct around ourselves. Lots of interesting ideas to delve into as part of such a wide topic, and my only criticism of the exhibition is that they don’t delve into any of the promising topics they parade in front of you. In an exhibition about skin, surely tattooing is one of the most interesting modern-day developments? Yes, tattooing as an art form is ancient, but modern tattooing is very much a phenomenon of our time. Surely that’s worth a brief look? But no, science is what the Wellcome Collection know, and it’s what they’re going to stick to.

The Wellcome Collection contains lots of anatomical diagrams, and these are out in force for this show. Historical science scares me more than it fascinates me because it’s always made me afraid how little we used to know, and how awful we used to be. There are, as is standard for a Wellcome Collection show, lots of drawings of vaginas and male hands rummaging around, and lots of reminders of how hideous men were to women (this exhibition, a case in point, features a photo of a woman deemed ‘hysterical’ because she has a dermalogical condition. The male doctors have scrawled their diagnosis into her back, and you can see the blood congealing).

Some really interesting ideas do emerge. Masks from the 1920s (when anti-ageing first became a market) are displayed, constructed from rubber and designed to pull the face back while the female wearer sleeps – to force out any wrinkles or imperfections gained during the day.

There are numerous mentions of tattoos through history and through culture, from beautiful three-dimensional Maori tribal tattoos to the macabre prison equivalent: gallows tattooed onto men due to be terminated, with the tattoo ink made from ground-down bin liners. Crude scribbles of naked women tattooed onto the bodies of prostitutes to allow their trade to always be identified. Curios of times past, including stretched skins from long-dead inhabitants, all too reminiscent of the Roald Dahl short story about the most beautifully-tattooed man in the world. Whose skin turns up one day under mysterious circumstances.

The exhibition is free, and interesting, and wide-ranging. It’s an appetite-whetter, rather than sater, but that’s alright. Visit it before it disappears forever, and find your own favourites. Just don’t consider the mummified corpse for too long.

Skin, at the Wellcome Trust

2 thoughts on “Skin, at the Wellcome Trust

  1. […] Sarah Housley wasn’t alone in seeing an element of cruelty in the exhibition: “Lots of drawings of vaginas and male hands rummaging around, and lots of reminders of how hideous men were to women”. Many writers also noted the sinister implications of an early 20th-century photograph displaying writing on the back of a female patient, apparently carving a psychiatric diagnosis into the patient’s flesh (the truth is more complex: see this blog post on the skin condition known as dermatographic urticaria). […]

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