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All human life is here

An exhibition at the Wellcome Collection’s new permanent gallery examines what it’s like to be human in the 21st century

12 September, 2019 — By Jane Clinton

Stranger Visions, Heather Sewey-Hagborg, 2012-2013, © Heather Sewey-Hagborg. Courtesy Wellcome Collection

What does the scent of extinct flowers smell like? And how did one woman’s unique cancer cells form the basis of future cancer research? These and many other questions are answered in the Wellcome Collection’s new permanent gallery Being Human.

It looks at that most perplexing of subjects: what it is to be human in all its chaos and brilliance in the 21st century. Divided into four sections – Genetics, Minds and Bodies; Infection and Environ­mental Breakdown – there are around 50 artworks and objects on display.

In Genetics we see an exhibit, Remembering Henrietta Lacks. There is a vial of Lacks’ cells and a photograph of Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951. She was an African-American woman whose cancer cells transformed medical research and in turn saved countless lives.

What made Lacks unique was her cells which were immortal due to a genetic mutation and continued to divide outside her body. The cells, which were given the name the HeLa cell line, were originally cultivated without the knowledge of Lacks or her family. This display, however, was undertaken with the consent of Lacks’ family and draws out important questions about privacy and consent.

Near to Lacks’ exhibit there is the Stranger Visions image. Heather Dewey-Hagborg sequenced the DNA from discarded cigarette butts, hair and gum to find genetic markers that influence physical appearance. Her portrait of a man – a 3D print – is imaginary and is eerily attractive and unsettling.


Friendship Bench, 2019

The Friendship Bench

A wooden park bench dominates the Minds and Bodies section. This is a Friendship Bench – the result of a project in Zimbabwe that used everyday language to help people explore mental health issues. Founder Dixon Chibanda worked with volunteers and local health workers and trained up grandmothers to help treat “Kufungisisa” or “thinking too much”. It has been extremely effective and friendship benches which are situated near clinics have also been rolled out across Africa and in New York.

The accompanying audio explains the project and the sad story that inspired it. One of Dixon’s patients could not afford the money she needed to attend the clinic, she missed out on her counselling and killed herself. These benches are dotted around and go some way to enable people to access treatment easily and without cost.

Equally affecting is the exhibit entitled 5318008. Located in the Infection section, the bronze vase-like object is infused with the scent of human breast milk. But what has this got to do with infection? Well, the sculpture celebrates bifidobacteria, which is transferred from mother to child and nurtured through breastfeeding.

This bacterium is found in babies’ digestive systems and helps in the breakdown of sugars in breast milk. The name is also playful. Turn 5318008 upside down and it speeds “boobies”.

As for what the sculpture smells like, it is a cross between soap and those penny milk bottle sweets.

Smell is also a feature in the Environmental Breakdown part of the gallery, in particular the work Resurrecting the Sublime. Here the artist Christina Agapakis has created a panel infused with the lost scent of extinct flowers.

She looked for smell-producing enzymes in genetic material from pressed 19th-century specimens of the extinct flowering plant Hibiscadelphus wilderianus. The plant’s habitat on Mount Haleakalā, Hawaii, was destroyed by colonial cattle ranching. Although the flower’s scent remains unknowable, the white panel, which has a geometric relief, gives off the scent when it is rubbed.

Above left: Latai, No Human Being Is Illegal (in all our glory), Deborah Kelly and collaborators, 2014 – 2018. Image Courtesy Wellcome Collection
Right: Refugee Astronaut III, Yinka Shonibare CBE, 2019, © Yinka Shonibare CBE. Image Courtesy Wellcome Collection

The dominant work, however, of the whole exhibition has to be the newly commissioned work Refugee Astronaut III by Yinka Shonibare. The life-size astronaut carries a net of belongings on its back. Among them is a copy of Captain Cook’s Voyages. Who is this refugee? Where are they going? But perhaps more importantly: what have they left behind?

It is a challenging exhibition bringing together disparate strands of what it is to be human.

As curator Clare Barlow explains, the exhibition explores our thoughts and feelings about health, our identities, relationships, and our impact on the changing environment. “Bringing together these objects reveals how we are all different, we are all valuable and we are all connected,” she adds.

As for the elusive scent of extinct flowers, to my untrained nose they have the distinct whiff of cloves about them. But of course you may smell it differently.

• Being Human is at the Wellcome Collection. 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Call 020 7611 2222 or visit


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