Before I start with “Electricity,” I wanted to mention that this past Monday marked four years since I started blogging! I didn’t feel the need to make a special post about it or anything, but sometimes I anthropomorphise Diverting Journeys a little bit, and I didn’t want my blog to feel bad that I didn’t acknowledge its birthday somewhere. Now with that out of the way, on to the Wellcome!
Since most special exhibitions in London cost £12 and up, and I have a constant need for new blogging material, I am grateful that the Wellcome Collection can be depended upon to provide an ever-changing series of interesting, and always-free new exhibitions. The latest is “Electricity: The spark of life,” which opened on 23 February, and runs until 25 June. The only downside is that the Wellcome doesn’t allow photography inside its galleries, so I never get to show you all the cool stuff on display!
I managed to get to the Wellcome a bit earlier than I would normally get up and out of the house, and was rewarded with an exhibit that while no means empty, was positively tranquil compared to the madness that ensues at lunchtime. I think it also helped that there didn’t seem to be quite as much content in “Electricity” as there normally is in their exhibits, or at least, it was far more spread out than normal. I am always impressed by the way they seem to completely rearrange the configuration of the gallery space for each new exhibition. Instead of being fairly open-plan, as Bedlam was, this was more like a shotgun house style arrangement of large rooms that were closed off from one another, save for the entrances and exits to/from each (I initially thought it was railroad apartment style (probably thanks to reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn about twenty times), but apparently a railroad apartment usually has a hallway, and the configuration I was thinking of is actually a shotgun house. You learn something new every day!). I actually preferred this, because when someone was blocking the displays and moving around at an irritatingly slow pace, it was easy to speed past them and leave them in the room behind me so I didn’t have to encounter them again, because there was really only the one path through the exhibit.
Because Henry Wellcome (the collection’s founder) was a pharmaceutical man, the exhibitions here generally have some kind of medical slant, and based off the description of “Electricity” on the museum’s website, which states, “this exhibition contemplates the contradictory life-giving and death-dealing extremes generated by electricity,” I was expecting it to be mostly about electricity and medicine; things like electrotherapy, ECT, accidental electrocution, and even the electric chair (although killing people is admittedly the complete opposite of what medicine is supposed to be about). This was actually only a very small part of the exhibit, which turned out to be more about how electricity changed everyday existence, particularly in Britain. (Side note: Like me, Henry Wellcome was an American who moved to Britain as an adult, and I notice he is listed as “American British” on his Wikipedia page. Now, I know Wikipedia is not a terribly reliable source, but I’ve been (jokingly) referring to myself as Anglo-American since I got British citizenship, and it seems like that might imply that you’re an American with English ancestry, which I definitely am not. So which is it? Can I keep using Anglo-American, or do I have to settle for the unwieldy and un-alliterative American British? Thoughts?)
The first things worth noting in the exhibition were the many, very entertaining short videos. Normally, I don’t bother to watch videos in a museum, because they’re either too long, not particularly interesting, or there’s too many people crowded around them. Well, the exhibit wasn’t very busy, as I said, and these videos were all around two minutes in length, so I couldn’t use that as an excuse. When I saw the guy next to me was standing there chuckling whilst watching the first video of the exhibition, I had to see what was so damn funny for myself, and then I was sold on the rest of the videos. The one that was causing all the laughter was from the 1950s, and showed a group of people in a laboratory receiving a shock from an electric eel. The next one was a clip from the dishy Colin Clive version of Frankenstein of the scene where he’s bringing the creature to life. Other videos included one of a 2.25 mile motorised walkway built in Paris in 1900 which showed adult Victorians behaving much like jerks of today, and hopping on and off and deliberately walking the wrong way on it, which was unexpected and delightful to see (and I thought motorised walkways were supposed to be the future (as in now)? Why are they now all confined to airports and Tube stations?), and another of the electrically-lit cabaret scene of Weimar-era Berlin. But the video highlight had to be the Buster Keaton short about an electric house with a robot arm that grabbed books in the library, a bathtub that ran on a track (why?!), and escalator style stairs that of course went hilariously wrong and tipped everybody out the upstairs window into a conveniently placed swimming pool. (Here’s the full 22 minute film, if anyone’s interested…we were shown a heavily condensed version.) Maybe I was just relieved that there wasn’t a video of Topsy the elephant (ugh, though I will watch the Bob’s Burgers version. Poor Tina), but these were all great.
There were also a few art installations, though one of them was closed for repairs. I did however, get to see the giant 3D frog projection, inspired by Galvani’s experiments with electricity, and it was pretty cool (frogs are one of my favourite animals, after toads. And bats. Frog and Toad forever!). (I wanted Marcus to try the spirit photography booth that I had so enjoyed on my last visit, but that was out of order too. It wasn’t a great day for technology at the Wellcome Collection.)
The narrative of the exhibit took visitors from ancient times, when people knew that electricity existed, but didn’t really understand what it was, to Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with lightning in the 18th century, to the electrification of Britain and building the National Grid, onwards to the 1920s and ’30s and the concept of the electrified and automated house (as parodied in the aforementioned Buster Keaton film) that would make life much easier for the British housewife (there was even a women’s electrical board set up to show women how electricity could make cooking and cleaning easier, and they printed helpful tips on tea towels. I’d quite like to get my hands on one of those). I thought there was a good amount of text, though the exhibit did seem at times to lack a comprehensive historical narrative, instead kind of skipping around to highlights of the electricity timeline (I believe each room was meant to be unified around a loose theme, but that was only apparent in some of the rooms).
Memorable artefacts included a display on how Bovril got its name (obviously “bo” from bovine, but I didn’t realise that “Vril” was taken from a creepy sounding Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel about a master race powered by a weird energy-fluid called Vril. This certainly doesn’t make Bovril any more appealing, nor did the early newspaper advertisement that showed cartoon cows being electrocuted to obtain their energy), an 18th century “thunder house” and “thunder ship” that were used to demonstrate the power of electricity, and a drawing of an electric plant done by a young engineer named Sebastian Ferranti, in which he had doodled happy smiling faces on all the machinery.
All in all, I think I enjoyed this more than Bedlam, but less than Forensics. Although it was still somewhat lacking, it had a better narrative than Bedlam, and I picked up enough intriguing facts (especially the one about Bovril) to impress friends with later that day. I think the gallery housing the exhibition was decorated rather sparsely this time, and I suppose that does keep the focus on the artefacts, but I definitely think they could have done something cooler using the theme of electricity, perhaps something like the entrance to the exhibit, pictured at the start of the post. It was still pretty alright though, even without more interesting decor or the medical focus I was anticipating. 3.5/5.