London: “Electricity: The Spark of Life” @ the Wellcome Collection

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.

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19 comments

    1. Thanks Susan! I’m fairly lucky in that London has so many free museums,but I’ve blogged about nearly all of their permanent collections by now, which means I increasingly have to rely on temporary exhibitions for new material, and those almost always charge hefty admission fees. That’s why I love the Wellcome Collection!

    1. Thank you! I grew up reading Frog and Toad, and I still love them to bits (I’d like to get a Frog and Toad tattoo one of these days)! I’m definitely more of a Toad than a Frog. I still have the old books knocking around my parents’ house somewhere, but I treated myself to the gorgeous hardback Frog and Toad Storybook Treasury last year, which has all the stories in it. Highly recommended, though maybe best for children of a learning-to-read age (and nostalgic adults) who have learned how to treat a book gently! Otherwise stick to the cheaper paperbacks! 🙂

      1. Ah you should do – I’d imagine it’d make a great tattoo. Yeah, I have just ordered two of the paperback books for my niece, she is a little young yet so I’ll give them to her when she grows up a little bit more. I’ve also just realized where that F** the police meme comes from, with the cover of one of the books!

      2. I’m definitely planning on it, as soon as I can afford to do it! I’m thinking one of the illustrations from the story where Frog and Toad can’t stop eating cookies, because that is definitely a situation I have found myself in more than once. I’m so pleased I inspired you to buy the books…I just hope you and your niece enjoy them as much as I do! I have seen that meme before, but am always happy to look at Frog and Toad.

      3. Nice 😀 I have a soft spot for frogs and toads anyway, with fond memories as a kid of watching them and handling them in friends ponds as they went about their business. So I’m really hoping I’ll read through these books with my niece and inspire a little bit of love for the natural world in her too 🙂

        Haha yeah I saw that a while ago and it made me chuckle, always wondered where the drawing had came from,

      4. I’m not sure how “natural” Frog and Toad are, considering they wear clothes and live in houses and eat cookies, but hopefully they can still make people appreciate actual frogs and toads, since I think they’re responsible for my love of them. One of the best days of the year is when all the tiny toads emerge on Wimbledon Common – they’re so cute!

      5. I really think its key to make kids love the natural environment at a young age as possible – plus I love the thought of toads and frogs eating cookies 😀 Ah nice! I haven’t seen any frogs or toads for ages sadly.

  1. Happy birthday to Diverting Journeys! I share your enthusiasm for the Bovril fact but have to disagree on Anglo-American which I definitely think is an American born person with English ancestry, similarly Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Indian etc. American British doesn’t sound so bad!

    1. Thanks Anabel! I do still think American British sounds awful, but I can’t think of a catchy portmanteau alternative. Although I’m not convinced that there’s hard and fast rules for this sort of thing, at least where Wikipedia is concerned, because Bill Bryson is listed as Anglo-American, despite apparently being of Irish ancestry, Henry James is “an American-born British writer,”and TS Elliott is simply “British,” because he renounced his American citizenship (though apparently so did Henry James). I can’t think of any famous people to check right now with less Anglo-sounding names, but I’m going to investigate further, because I am far from satisfied with American British.

      1. Confusion can ensue with all these terms! I used to read an American journal about children’s books and the editor told a story about a British book about a little black girl, and when it was to be published in America someone insisted “black” should be translated to “African American British”. Can’t remember the outcome, but I hope sense prevailed.

      2. It shouldn’t matter really, since I still sound and feel American (except when I’m actually in America…I still sound American there, but I don’t seem to quite fit in culturally), but sometimes I need to convey to people that I do have dual citizenship, and there’s no ideal way to do that on job applications and other forms that only let you pick one nationality – then I struggle with what to choose. I usually opt for British so they know I have the right to work here, but worry if I get an interview they’ll be expecting something different to what they’re getting!

  2. Happy anniversary! I’m so glad you did mention it – you’ve done such amazing work, and covered so much ground, in four years – it’d be a shame to let it just slip by.
    Okay, the Bovril bit blew me away. That’s about the last thing I’d have ever imagined it to be from. I’m going to have to hunt up a copy of that novel – it sounds good and icky.
    For my two cents, I think you should stick with Anglo-American. As far as I’m concerned your British citizenship and home address cover that nicely. And as you pointed out, the other option is just too clunky.
    Funny how we often sync up in our posts – I’ve been working on the “light situation” in early Toronto (candles to gas to electricity) so, as a sideline, I’ve been reading up on all the various electrical inventions of the 19th century – and not once have I come across that neat-o moving sidewalk! So thank you for that. I had no idea they’d been invented so early.

    1. Thank you! I don’t know how amazing my work actually is, but it’s nice of you to say so! And I think I am sticking with Anglo-American, at least among friends, which to be honest is primarily how I use it. In a non-serious manner, like if somebody goes, “Well, you’re American,” as a precursor to asking me about the latest bit of American political stupidity, I can smugly reply, “Anglo-American.”
      And I definitely dropped the ball on the Thomas Edison thing. I just looked it up and it was definitely the 1900 Paris Exposition, which makes sense given the fact that there was filmed footage of it (duh). I’ve duly amended the post, but I guess it’s still technically 19th century, or almost. Victorian anyway! Here’s the video I was talking about in case you haven’t found it…I guess if I would have just linked to it in the first place, I wouldn’t have gotten the date wrong. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjpCVQgKZsc

      1. 1900’s close enough for me – I’m still amazed they had one then. And that thing was amazing! Way better than the straight jaunts we have through airports now. We once had a moving sidewalk at a subway station here and they removed it. So now there’s just a really long, boring hallway you have to walk down. Stupid people, it was the one fun thing about the subway – which is pretty sad, but there it is.

      2. There’s still a few in Tube stations here, where there’s a particularly long trek. The one in Bank goes up on an incline. You also get the inclined ones at big supermarkets that have more than one level, so people can move their carts up and down, and those are pretty fun. The best moving walkway I’ve been on was at Sea World back in the day (and was probably the best damn part of Sea World, because I was not a fan); you stood on it while it carried you past the penguin enclosure, so people couldn’t monopolise the penguin viewing space!

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