London: “Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?”@ the Wellcome Collection

It’s finally autumn (the best season, obviously), and there’s a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, which is normally exciting in itself, so I should be happy, right? Well, unlike the Wellcome’s usual exhibition themes, which are either inherently fascinating to me (death, forensics, poop), or topics I can at least summon up a spark of interest in (electricity…see what I did there?), this one sounded like a real dud. Graphic design? Sorry, but no. In an ideal world, I’d go on to write how the Wellcome proved me wrong with their amazing exhibition, and really changed the way I think about graphic design, but we don’t live in that world, and I am not that blogger.

Photography is never allowed in the Wellcome’s main gallery space, which is particularly galling when the whole focus of the exhibition is graphics, but you can view a few of the images here. The Wellcome gets so crowded that I always try to come mid-day on a weekday (also so I have time to grab lunch from Roti King on the other side of Euston station – I’d never tried roti canai until I started eating there, but now I crave it pretty much all the time), but even that isn’t enough to avoid my fellow Londoners, because the museum is always hopping. I was dismayed to see there was an actual queue to look at the first set of cases, so I naturally bypassed it and headed straight for a display case in the middle of the room that almost no one was looking at. This turned out to contain graphics to do with anatomy, including a couple iPad models of the human body, and a small section on birth control with a few comic strips used by Planned Parenthood back in the infancy of the Pill. To be honest, I don’t think it made any difference what order I walked around in, because each display had a self-contained theme, and there wasn’t really any narrative tying the exhibition together; it was just a series of examples of different types of graphic design.

The line at the start of the exhibit eventually cleared, so I had a chance to meander over and check it out. This was the smoking themed section, and included both campaigns to encourage smoking (the designs of Silk Cut and Lucky Strike cigarette packets), and those against it, including a very bizarre Japanese poster on smoking etiquette that said something about how being scolded to pick a cigarette butt up was like being a child scolded for dropping candy wrappers (which to me sounds a little pro-smoker, but it was in the anti-smoking section, so maybe it lost something in translation).

The exhibition also dealt briefly with the design of fonts used in train stations and workplaces, which really had nothing to do with medicine at all, but I suppose the primary focus was indeed medical, because most of the other displays tied into medicine in some way; most obviously in the section on the design of prescription drugs, which has apparently been heavily influenced by an Israeli designer who came up with the idea of putting a big colourful shape on the front of prescription drug packets so pharmacists would be able to see with ease exactly what they were handing out, and thus avoid making dangerous mistakes. There was also a Swiss pharmaceutical company called JR Geigy AG that was renowned for its “ground-breaking” designs, though I do not remember exactly what they were.

There were displays on hospitals, mental health, and children’s medicine, but my favourite display was undoubtedly the one on epidemic disease. This contained some of the few properly historical objects in the museum, including posters warning about the spread of plague in 17th century Italy, and Victorian ones about cholera. There were some Dutch (I think? Damn this no picture rule!) designers that moved to Africa in the 1950s or ’60s and designed colourful posters explaining how leprosy is spread, and their work was here as well. Probably most visually striking, however, was the work done on the AIDS campaign in the 1980s-90s including a tombstone emblazoned with the word AIDS in giant red letters. There were also posters that went up in places like hospital waiting rooms and tattoo shops explaining how AIDS was spread, and also tying in with AIDS (sort of) was the display of condom packets (I was amused by the brand called OOOPH!) which came in an impressive and rather hilarious array of designs.

I feel like this exhibition was a lot smaller than most of the Wellcome’s major exhibitions, because it was limited to one large room, rather than a whole series of galleries like normal. I suppose it worked well with the theme, because it was bold visually and there wasn’t an overarching story to tell for which being led around a progression of galleries would make sense, but it nonetheless didn’t make for a particularly impressive exhibition. I left feeling just as uninspired by graphic design as I was when I went in – I suppose it might save my life, to answer the question in the title of the exhibition, but that doesn’t make it intrinsically interesting. I’m sticking with my initial description of dud for this one. 2.5/5 – it might be OK if you have a strong interest in graphic design, but if you were expecting something with a lot of informative text about the history of medicine and how graphic design tied into medical advances, like I was, you’re going to leave disappointed.

I also have to report that the Wellcome updated its Spirit Booth, which I was really excited to have my picture taken in last winter, and it was not an update for the better. Not only do you no longer get a physical copy of your photo (it’s all online), you have to answer a series of questions (in your mind) first, which would be fine, except for the voice in the booth pauses for about a full minute between each question, and you’re left sitting there in the dark wondering whether the booth is malfunctioning (for real, it doesn’t take a minute to read five words of text). They asked for feedback on the Spirit Booth, so here it is: put it back to the way it was before, or at least speed up the voice!





  1. Yes, I got your sparky pun! (I’m slow about such things, so you must have done it very cleverly.) I have a question for you now: with such a wealth of material, what do you plan to do with it? A book, a thesis … or other?

    1. Glad you got it! It admittedly wasn’t a particularly good pun, but even bad puns make me smirk.
      Honestly, I kind of just blog for the sake of blogging at this point. When I first started, I had some vague intention of someday writing a book (not necessarily about museums or weird places, it was just that those are the sort of things I’m interested in, and I was looking to get back in the habit of writing after not really doing it since grad school), and I guess I would still like to at some point, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. So the blog is really just a hobby for the foreseeable future, but if people find it informative or amusing, then all the better!

  2. I think this sounds quite interesting, though I don’t think I would take too long to get round it. I remember those tombstones: the TV ad was particularly scary. That and the Protect and Survive booklet are etched on my mind forever.

    1. I think I’m a bit young to remember the AIDS TV ads (though I imagine they would have been different in the US anyway), though I do remember watching a report on flesh eating bacteria on the news when I was a kid that scared the absolute crap out of me because I didn’t really understand how you caught it. For a while, I’d avoid anyone with a rash (which is not that easy to do in the summer when you live somewhere where poison ivy thrives) in case it was flesh eating bacteria that was going to eat my leg off.

  3. Too bad it was such a disappointment. I also don’t find graphic design all that interesting and am more excited by object oriented exhibitions. I absolutely loved the Wellcome when I was in London in summer 2012. There was this really interesting exhibition on the brain and I felt like I could have spent hours perusing the books in the gift shop.
    Btw, if it’s not too inconvenient to get to Norwich, a Faberge exhibition is about to open at Sainsbury and will be on view until February. Just thought I’d let you know so I can visit vicariously through you if possible haha

    1. I LOVE their gift shop too! I’m kind of the worst though and just go through and write down all the titles of the books I want to read there and then get them from the library or order them off Amazon because it’s cheaper (I do feel bad about it, but books are expensive!). I’m trying to remember (ha!) if I saw that brain thing; I probably did, since I went to most of their exhibits even before I blogged, but I’m not sure without the post to back it up.
      I went to a Faberge exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art with my grandma when I was a kid, and I have really fond memories of it. I’ll try to go up and see it if I can – depends on whether I can get cheap enough train tickets! I like getting out of London when I can, but it always feels like such a hassle with the price of train travel.

  4. Yeah, this graphics exhibit wouldn’t have done it for me either, but your take on it is exceedingly entertaining – so you at least have turned a dud into a gem. I laughed out loud at your line “we don’t live in that world, and I am not that blogger.” I want that on a t-shirt!
    I’m going to have to look up these “Ooomph” condoms, they sound pretty great. But what a shame about the spirit booth – though I was happy for another look at last year’s shot. That skeleton-snake head thing cracks me up. It’s so un-spirit-y.
    On a separate and boring personal note: I’ve had a miserable trifecta of computer failures this past month, which I’ve finally just sorted out. So while I’m, sadly, late to these posts, I have to say it’s a treat to get a double-shot on a Sunday morning.

    1. Thanks! That makes blogging about a sub-par exhibit not feel like a total waste of time (and it’s always satisfying if people actually enjoy my snarky comments)! I was thinking of having some t-shirts made for the museum shop I’m now responsible for…maybe I can get some “we don’t live in that world, and I am not that blogger” shirts made up along with the Eadweard Muybridge ones I want to get (his photographic plates are kind of the jewel of our collection).
      The thing I was pictured with this time was a gross flea. And I was making a gross face. It was all-around bad.
      And sorry to hear about your computer problems! I was having a lot of trouble with my laptop too and wouldn’t have been able to blog either if I hadn’t had Marcus’s laptop to use (not ideal though because he’s always on the damn thing). Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of my trip home and buy a new laptop there, because they’re much cheaper in the States than Britain, and I hope you’ve managed to permanently remedy your issues too!

      1. I’d definitely take one each of those t-shirts if you had them! They’d be so great – and I know you’d make sure there were decent women’s ones, rather than the thick, stiff men’s style that you mentioned. Those awful things are so unflattering and chafe-y with their tight necklines and boxy sleeves.
        Ha! I had the same trouble trying to use my boyfriend’s laptop. But happily, just as I was going to buy a new one, my cousin gave me a really decent one she’d never used much. I’m so grateful and relieved – and I’m glad to hear you’ve got a nice, new reliable one too!

      2. Well…now that I’m on the other side of things actually doing the buying for a shop, I might have to retract some of my earlier bitching about those men’s shirts. I definitely still think they’re awful, but I never realised how difficult it is to bulk-order women’s t-shirts with a design of your choosing for a reasonable price. Most of the companies I’m looking at don’t even offer women’s t-shirts, and the ones that do either have a minimum order that’s way too high for our shop, or charge so much that I wouldn’t be able to resell them for a reasonable price. So I probably shouldn’t be so hard on other shops anymore, because it’s not that easy to have nice things made for a relatively low-traffic shop. I’m at least trying to spring for the highest grade of (crappy men’s) t-shirt though, in the hope that maybe the cotton will be less itchy and stiff.
        And I’m glad your laptop situation was resolved in a similarly satisfactory manner!

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