London: Play Well and Misbehaving Bodies @ the Wellcome Collection

I felt like I had just been at the Wellcome Collection, but unless I was and didn’t blog about it (unlikely), it seems my most recent visit was in May or June last year, which is apparently enough time for everything to have changed. Well, not everything, but a lot of things! I came specifically this time to see “Play Well: Why Play Matters” which runs until 8th March. Despite the seemingly child-friendly name, this exhibition is very much aimed at adults, which is probably why they had to put a disclaimer on their website about the limited interactivity of the exhibition. There were still more children inside than in a normal Wellcome exhibition (which usually, blissfully, has almost none), but nowhere near as many as you’d get in a normal museum.

As you might expect, this exhibition was about the psychological and physical benefits play can bring; however, it wasn’t a particularly playful exhibition, for all that the layout was allegedly designed by children. It began with the history of the kindergarten movement and the work of Friedrich Frobel, who designed a series of 20 “gifts” meant to aid a child’s development from infancy on up. All these gifts were collected together in the cases that dominated the first section, but there was no explanation of how the toys were used, how children were given these gifts (did parents have to buy them? Were they provided by schools?), or really anything, other than the name of each gift. I did, however, find it interesting that the kindergarten concept started as literal “kinder” gardens, where each child would tend to their own little plot of land in order to teach them life skills, as you can see in the photo above.

 

There was also a lot of information on the development of nursery schools in Italy, and on playgrounds in the UK (there was a photo series of children in the Gorbals of Glasgow, a notorious 19th and early 20th century slum, playing in the cemetery as it was the only bit of green space available to them), and the importance of allowing children to take risks in their play. There were a handful of interactive things, but they were primarily computer games that looked to be circa 1980 (we had a computer from the late ’80s onward, and the games I played on it as a kid were more advanced than these ones) and were so text heavy that they weren’t even fun. The only interactive bit that looked vaguely entertaining was a sort of soft play area built into a wall (confusingly, it had a sign saying it was not a soft play area), but I wasn’t clear on whether it was aimed at adults or children, and it had a set of rules that included taking off your shoes, which left old no-socks-Jessica out in the cold again due to not wishing to startle people with my foot odour.

 

The most charming objects here by far were the actual toys (on display, not to be played with), that had been owned and loved by children, especially sweet little Pumpie the elephant, who was wearing a handmade suit, part of an apparently extensive wardrobe. His owner even posed him in formal portraits that I thought were the best thing ever (even though the picture of Pumpie staring out to sea makes me quite sad). I also liked the story of a teddy that had been operated on by its owner (gently, in order to find out why its growler had stopped working, and carefully stitched back up afterwards) who grew up to be a vet. If the exhibition had more personal stories like this, I would have loved it, but this was only one small section. I heard people outside the exhibition talking about how great it was, and I do not agree. Except for Pumpie and co, it was a bit boring and not particularly appealing to children or adults. 2.5/5.

 

We headed upstairs afterwards because I wanted to see what they had done with the Medicine Now gallery, which was notable mainly for its life size sculpture of a man made up totally out of fat lumps, as I knew they had replaced it with a new gallery called Being Human, but I also unexpectedly encountered another temporary exhibition I didn’t even know about, this one called “Misbehaving Bodies,” which ended shortly after my visit. It featured the work of two artists, Jo Spence, and Oreet Ashery. Spence’s pieces were about her diagnosis and subsequent treatment for breast cancer (unsuccessful, she died in the 1992 at the age of 58), and Ashery’s were about confronting mortality. In spite of the subject matter being obviously more depressing than “Play Well,” I actually found this exhibition much more engaging.

 

Ashery’s pieces were in the form of videos, which were set up at comfy viewing stations throughout the room (they had giant teddy bears in them you could lean on. So cosy!) showing interviews with real people living with life limiting conditions, as well as a fictional narrative about a dying woman named Genesis (I have to admit I didn’t watch all the videos, so I kind of missed the whole Genesis thing and just saw the real people).

Spence’s pieces reflected the less high-tech world she lived and died in, and were mainly photographs and collages about her life and experience of cancer treatment in the NHS, and though I’ve fortunately never had to deal with any kind of serious illness, I have had to seek treatment for a number of minor but chronic conditions, and I could relate to her frustration with the system. I do think the NHS is a wonderful thing in theory, but in practice it is completely overstretched (not at all helped by the Tories being in power for so long), and has a number of overworked, unempathetic, and sometimes downright incompetent doctors working for it (though based on my experience, I think you find doctors like that in every country), with systems that are outdated at best. Spence was told she had breast cancer by a young doctor who simply drew an “X” on one of her breasts and told her the whole thing would have to come off. Awful! My own, much less serious but still irritating saga, involves seeking treatment in a specialist, but still NHS clinic (because my GP wouldn’t take my problems seriously and misdiagnosed me just to get rid of me); and finally being prescribed a medication that did help, but told to get refills from my GP, who refused to give it to me because the clinic doctor never sent a letter, and apparently the different branches of the NHS are not joined up in any way. I had to make three trips to the clinic to get them to write the letter, and am now on my third appointment with the GP just to try to get a repeat prescription so I don’t have to keep making appointments every month, because the last time I went I had to see this awful locum who didn’t listen to me at all, and not only gave me a refill of a medication I didn’t want or need, he gave me the wrong dosage(!) of the one I did need. I don’t know how people who have serious illnesses have jobs, because if I didn’t have Mondays off, I would have had to take off of work at least four times just to be able to get the medication that I was prescribed in the correct dosage.

 

Anyway (I seem to be going on a lot of rants lately, don’t I?), even though many of Spence’s pieces were text heavy, I thought her life was really interesting, so I read them all. I’m glad I got to see this exhibition before it finished, since it totally escaped my radar until near the end. I also did check out the Being Human gallery, which is perfectly fine, but not the sort of thing to which I will feel the need to make frequent return trips (unlike their Medicine Man exhibition on Henry Wellcome, which is endlessly fascinating). There was a lot of modern art and not nearly enough interactive elements.

The other thing I was surprised by was that the toilets at the Wellcome have completely changed, and though surely it must have taken months to do, I seemed to have missed the entire transition period. They have changed the male and female toilets into self-contained unisex stalls, which is fine, except I didn’t realise they had changed when I first went in and was a bit taken aback to see a guy standing there. I never eat at the Wellcome’s cafe (I had cake there once and it was not good), but I’m glad they have moved the pastries away from the centre of the cafe, where everyone could sneeze and cough all over them, and put them under a sneeze guard by the tills. You’d think a medical museum would understand the importance of keeping germs away from food! A somewhat disappointing visit, except for “Misbehaving Bodies.”

11 comments

    1. I’m afraid Misbehaving Bodies is no longer there. It ended in January. Play Well is still there though, and the Science Museum has a new medicine gallery that I’ve been meeting to check out, though I haven’t had a chance yet.

  1. I wonder whose Gorbals pictures they were? There have been a number of series taken there. (Rhetoric question! I don’t expect you to know). Kids used to play in the Southern Necropolis where there was a notorious “vampire hunt” in the 1950s. Also in the “Rosie” or Rose Garden which was a cemetery but is now a small park. My friend, who grew up their in the 60s, remembers playing there.

    Your NHS experiences sound horrific. I think NHS Scotland is more joined up and cooperatively run.

    1. Bert Hardy is the answer to your rhetorical question. I often hear that the Scottish NHS is better, and I can well believe it. It certainly couldn’t be any worse! I really don’t like crapping on the NHS, but I’ve yet to have a wholly positive experience. My appointment yesterday resulted in me being told to come back next week as the GP doesn’t know what’s wrong with me and needs to ask around (always reassuring). It’s a good thing I don’t have to work every weekday so I can attend all these appointments!

      1. Oh yes, I know Bert Hardy’s pictures, taken for Picture Post. Doctors asking around is about the most unreassuring thing you could hear! My main experience these days is with my mum, and my dad before he died in 2015, and they have both had excellent care.

  2. Jessica, I always enjoying your posts because you are always brutally honest (but fair with it). I think the Wellcome Collection is an amazing place but some of their exhibitions land better than others – and Play Well vs Misbehaving Bodies illustrates that perfectly. I think I would enjoy the latter, but my heart is breaking for Jo Spence. I sincerely hope that doctors today are better equipped to deliver bad news.

    1. Thank you! I would also hope that doctors today receive better training in delivering bad news, but there are always some with zero people skills. I’ve recently had consultants say some tactless things to me, though fortunately not about anything as serious as cancer.

  3. I love the photo of Pumpie!

    Sorry to hear of your health service woes – sounds very frustrating. My experiences with GPs have been mixed. I do hope things improve soon.

    1. Thanks! I saw a different GP last time, who was lovely, but I also had to meet with a consultant who commented that I “must be poorly paid” when I told her what I did (I am, but pretty rude for someone else to say so), and that I was lucky my partner had stayed with me. She was an awful woman.

      1. She sounds awful. I’m sorry you had to experience that – so rude and very unnecessary. The world would be a better place if people kept their stupid, unkind opinions to themselves.

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