London: “Spare Parts” @ the Science Gallery

I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty excited about the opening of the Science Gallery and their first exhibition, “Hooked,” on addiction, and shared that enthusiasm in my post last month. Which is why their current exhibition comes as something of a disappointment. (If you’ve read my post on the Migration Museum, you will notice that I’m wearing the same outfit as in this post. This is because I visited both on the same day, not because I have a weird closet full of twenty sets of the same outfit, like Jerry’s girlfriend in that one episode of Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Based on my initial positive experience (and my passion for Kappacasein’s grilled cheese) as well as my promise to blog about their next exhibition in a more timely fashion, I went out to see “Spare Parts” only a week after it opened. Like the previous exhibition, this was free, and I’m glad, because I got a taste of the general underwhelmingness of this exhibition right from the start. We walked in and were greeted by the first piece of art, which was supposed to be a series of four lights that flashed when you put your hands on some sensors, but it wasn’t super obvious where the sensors were at first, and even after I figured it out, they didn’t do anything (I know the lights are on in the photo, but they didn’t flash on or off no matter where I put my hands). This didn’t bode well.

The theme of “Spare Parts” was meant to be the “art and science of organ transplantation and tissue regeneration” which sounds interesting enough, but I don’t think that came across well at all in most of the pieces. “Hooked” was made up of a series of themed galleries, and even though I don’t think the themes were always super clear, at least the space was divided in an atmospheric way so that you felt you were having an experience whilst progressing through the exhibition. “Spare Parts” was far more open, and there didn’t seem to be any smaller themes at all within the larger theme of body tissues.

Also, I presumed that many of the pieces here were meant to be interactive, or at least reactive, like the typewriter that was meant to type stream-of-consciousness thoughts, or “New Organs of Creation,” which was supposed to play sounds unattainable by the human voice. I think I may have misunderstood the descriptions that were in the exhibition slightly, as I got the impression that we were supposed to speak to both pieces to get them to react (so apparently I kept saying “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times” to the typewriter for no reason, as it was never going to type it. I must have looked like an idiot), though according to the online description, they were already programmed to do whatever they were going to do and my presence was never meant to have an effect. Either way, since they weren’t doing anything, they were rather pointless.

Therefore, I was excited when I found one interactive element, or at least one that sounded interactive – a 3D printer where you could print a miniature body part (not one of your actual body parts, but you could choose one from a pre-programmed selection, which is still quite cool). But it said to ask a member of staff for help, and sadly, they were all huddled in the corner having an in-depth conversation about somebody’s wedding. Marcus even approached them to try to get them to help, and they completely ignored him. Not cool. I get that the pay is probably crappy (if they’re even paid!), but c’mon, at least make an attempt. I was pretty pissed off to be honest, but I just wandered away and returned about ten minutes later to find that one of them had finally broken away from the conversation and was willing to help us (and to be fair, she was perfectly nice once we had her attention, it was just getting it that was the issue). Because the printing process took about fifteen minutes, and we’d already seen most of the exhibition, we just requested one ear between us. The end result is pretty neat, though I wish we had been able to obtain it on our first attempt!

I did find a few more interactive pieces, like a giant pair of plastic globes you were supposed to wear over your ears whilst walking around the exhibition, and some pictures of organs you could colour (somebody needs to sharpen the coloured pencils though!), although the wall where you were supposed to be able to hear your own heartbeat was just a wall with some insulation over it (as you can see above the previous paragraph), and not actually fun at all. At least some comic relief was provided by a video of an artist who had received a kidney transplant dancing around the desert in a very tight bodysuit. There was a central space in the exhibition that I think was meant to be for various activities like playing a “Superturd” card game and grafting a cactus, but other than a pack of “Superturd” cards sitting on a pedestal, where they seemed to be more of a display than something you could pick up and play, none of these activities were in evidence at the time of our visit.

Because of the lack of text outside of the object labels, which in most cases weren’t comprehensive enough for me to fully understand the intent behind a piece, as well as the disappointing lack of interactivity, we finished with the exhibition in about half an hour (and it wouldn’t have even been that long if we hadn’t had to hang around for a bit waiting for the ear to print). I like that they offer a take-home element (like the 3D printed body part, or the cool terracotta tokens in “Hooked”), which, as a free museum, they certainly don’t have to do, but the rest of the exhibition was really not great. Honestly, it felt like a bit of a rush job, like they didn’t have time to set it up properly, an impression reinforced by the empty space behind the gallery still full of water bottles and used tea things that they evidently hadn’t yet cleared away after an event (and speaking as someone who has worked in both events and museums (and events at museums), sometimes you are too busy to clear something up immediately, which I completely understand, but if you have time to sit around and chat, you probably have time to tidy up. I’m turning into a real crab apple, aren’t I?). I will still go back because I like the concept of the gallery and the subjects of their upcoming exhibitions sound interesting, but I was really not impressed this time around. 1.5/5.

 

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12 comments

  1. Interesting to hear your review of the Spare Parts exhibition! I’m planning on visit this weekend (I’m an organ recipient and studying philosophy of transplantation so this initially sounded right up my street). But, having heard something similar to your comments from a Artist colleague whose visited, I’ll be pre-emptively setting my expectations low 🙂

  2. Disappointing, especially since the description sounds like it had a lot of potential. It is soooo frustrating when interactives (or any exhibit, actually) doesn’t work – and hard to understand when the exhibit is new. At least you got your ear!

  3. Damn, what a shame. I was so excited when I saw “Spare Parts” in the title and was hopeful there’d be limbs and eyes and whatnot. But wedding talk and ignoring a patron? Boo… But the miniature ear is pretty cute.
    “The blurst of times.” Ha!
    The picture of you against the heartbeat wall is really cool. You look like a Dean Cornwall heroine. So, at least you got that out of the experience too.
    I laughed at your saying that if you have time to chat, you have time to tidy. Reminded me of a Paul F. Tompkins story about working retail and his boss telling him “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

    1. I had to look up Dean Cornwell (Cornwall? Nothing came up for Cornwall so I assume it’s Cornwell), but wow, thanks!
      “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean” is definitely a favourite saying of all bosses in retail, food service, etc, at least in my experience. The thing is, if you’re on your feet all day, sometimes you really do just need to lean for a while. The people working here had seats available though, so I don’t think it would have killed them to tidy the colouring area. I tidy up the Children’s Corner of the museum every night before I lock up, and I’m usually in a hurry to get out the door, so if I can do it when I don’t really have time, I don’t know what their excuse is!

  4. Sorry, I’m a dope – I did mean Cornwell. I really enjoy his work, so I’m glad if you liked it too. I’ll try to send you the painting your photo reminded me of.
    Ugh, I’m sorry to hear that’s a common saying. I once worked in a baby clothing store and my boss’s husband said something in that vein – but he didn’t make it rhyme and was annoying anyway, so I mostly ignored him. But dirty cups at a museum are a whole different animal. That’s not just re-folding stuff so you look busy.

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