Identity: Eight rooms, nine lives - further details
14 October 2009
The exhibition is part of an ambitious season of activities focused on the endlessly fascinating topic of human identity.
A newly commissioned play by singer-songwriter Billy Bragg (performed for 20 nights at the end of the exhibition run), extracts from the diary of Tony Benn, time warped twins, the first person in Britain to undergo gender reassignment, the actress Fiona Shaw, and a special time lapsed mirror revealing to us how the rest of the world see us, all form part of this investigative exhibition that attempts to explore human identity and its infinite amount of possibilities.
From the development of finger-printing and DNA techniques to Samuel Pepys diary, 'Identity' is framed around eight discrete rooms each showcasing the lives and works of individuals who have shaped our thinking about human identity.
Visitors will be able to explore contributions made by these diverse individuals spanning the worlds of science, the arts and history, who collectively have provided a fuller understanding of what distinguishes each one of us, as well as setting challenging questions about our own sense of our individuality.
'Identity': 26 November 2009-6 April 2010
Press preview: Wednesday 25 November, 09.30-13.00
A chance to preview the exhibition and meet with the curators. Contact Mike Findlay for details.
Venue: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
Admission is free
Opening times: Tuesday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday: 10.00-18.00
Closed Monday (except bank holidays: 10.00-18.00)
Recent advances in scientific and particularly biomedical techniques have made the task of uniquely identifying each of us easier. Fingerprints, voice recognition, iris scans and DNA profiles all enable the establishment of databases that record what distinguishes you from everybody else. However, we still find the questions "who are you?" and even "who am I?" extremely difficult to answer.
"This exhibition takes a look back through history both at how science has attempted to determine human identity and at how we ceaselessly try to determine our own sense of self," explains James Peto, senior curator at Wellcome Collection. "Identity is a huge topic, so rather than trying to tackle it in one all-encompassing exhibition, we are staging a series of smaller, simultaneous, semi-discrete exhibitions, each tackling a different aspect of, or approach to the subject."
Hugh Aldersey-Williams, co-curator of 'Identity' comments: "The topic we are examining is so complicated, we knew we had to give it a human face. So we've done this quite literally, using a fascinating array of individuals to personify aspects of the subject. Visitors will see how these individuals have informed our understanding of identity, but they will also find out unexpected things about them as people."
Each of the eight rooms will focus on an individual or individuals whose lives or achievements have influenced our thinking about human identity. The individuals are:
- Sir Alec Jeffreys, a British geneticist who developed the technique of DNA profiling which is now used all over the world to assist police detective work, and also to resolve paternity and immigration disputes.
- April Ashley, one of the first people in the UK to undergo gender reassignment.She then struggled for 35 years to get the reassignment officially recognised. Her story reflects an awkwardly drawn-out struggle to align two definitions of Ashley's sex - one defined by biology and surgery, the other by state bureaucracy.
- Claude Cahun, who lived in Jersey under Nazi occupation. She created a remarkable series of photographic self-portraits during the 1920s and 30s. Being both Jewish and identifying herself as lesbian, her images, as well as the basic details of her life, reveal how she flexed and adapted the nature of her identity and sexuality.
- Fiona Shaw, an actress who has played a great variety of roles, from Richard II for the National Theatre to Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter films. Her work illuminates the unusual licence granted to actors to transgress the social expectation that we stick to being ourselves.
- Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's prolific, polymath cousin. Primarily a scientist, obsessed with measuring and statistically analysing vast ranges of human traits (anthropometrics), and credited with the invention of fingerprinting Galton arguably, devised a 'science of identity'.
- Franz Joseph Gall, a 19th century pioneer of phrenology - an investigation now dismissed as quack science, but originally undertaken in deadly earnest in the hope of learning where in our bodies our character resides. Its subject was the measurement and correlation of skull-shape with human characteristics as diverse as criminality and creativity, analysed according to the criteria of normality, abnormality and deformity.
- The Hinch family from Peterborough, who have had twins in their family for three generations. The youngest 'twins' (now 1 and 4 years old) were separated through the freezing and delayed development of one embryo. The father on the other hand is a conventional identical twin. He grew up sharing both genes and environment with his brother, but his daughters will challenge our preconceptions of what it means to be a twin.
- Samuel Pepys, an English naval administrator and Member of Parliament, who is now most famous for his diary. The detailed private diary he kept during 1660-1669 is one of the most important primary sources for the English Restoration period. Astonishingly, it was not published in a complete edition until the 1980s. Recording failings as well as achievements, it is regarded as the prototype of the diary as an honest record of the self.
'Identity' also features 'Hereafter' an installation work by London based art and design practice UnitedVisualArtists. Literally a time lapsed mirror, 'Hereafter' deals with memory and perception, and how spaces can be affected by what has happened in them over time. As the viewer approaches the piece they appear to be viewing a mirror, but on further inspection all is not what it seems. Echoes of previous viewer's actions are displayed intermixed with the current viewer's movement and presence.
Events programme just announced: January-April 2010
To coincide with the exhibition, a lively programme of discussions, debates, and performances will allow visitors to engage in dialogue about issues from race to the National DNA Database and animal behaviour.
19 April-12 May 2010
A new musical play featuring Billy Bragg and his band
Acclaimed writer and theatre director Mick Gordon, joins forces with legendary singer-songwriter Billy Bragg to continue his On Theatre series. 'Pressure Drop' is an exploration of personal and national identity. In muscular song and haunting dialogue, an ensemble of thirteen fights to protect their idea of home. Note that the performances will take place in the temporary gallery space and the audience will be expected to stand throughout. More details to be confirmed.
Saturday 23 January, 15.00-16.30
Hear about the extraordinary stories of people who have given up their old identities and taken on new ones. In a night of detection, deliberation and exposure, we'll examine examples from history and unpick the psychological impacts of leading a secret life.
- Edward Higgs, Professor, Department of History, University of Essex
- Others tbc
Thursday 28 January, 19.00-20.30
Differences in race may be obvious to the eye but is there any scientific basis underlying skin colour? Contemporary science is split on this complex question. The use of 'race' in science is loaded with a dangerous past so should we confine it to the history books?
- Kenan Malik, author, 'Strange Fruit: Why both sides are wrong in the race debate'
- Others tbc
The National DNA Database on Trial
Thursday 4 February, 19.00-20.30
Whose DNA and for how long?
The UK has the largest forensic database in the world, with details of more than 5 million people. The size of the database and the length of time a sample can be held for are controversial and under review following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. Find out more about the science of the database and join its defence or attack.
- Shami Chakrabarti, Director, Liberty
- David Goodhart, Editor, Prospect
- Others tbc
China: Birth and belonging
Friday 26 February, 19.00-21.00 and Saturday 27 February, 10.30-17.00
Tickets: £30 full price, £20 concession, for both days, including refreshments and lunch
In the West we have an egocentric sense of the self. China provides us with different social, philosophical and scientific perspectives. From the impact that the state has on an individual's identity to issues around stem cell research, over two days we'll explore Chinese ideas of birth and belonging through performance, talks and discussion.
See later press release for full list of speakers and performers
Thursday 18 March, 19.00-20.30
Many species have evolved strategies of collective behaviour where groups work together 'as one', and are capable of more than the sum of their parts. From social insects to flocking behaviour, meerkats to migrations, we'll explore the genetics underlying these feats.
- Dr Seirian Sumner, social insects researcher, Zoological Society of London
- Others tbc
Rewiring the Mind: Should we erase traumatic memories?
Thursday 25 March, 19.00-20.30
Scientists may soon be able to erase painful memories, offering a cure for phobias and stress disorders. But what might this mean for our identity and humanity - how far do our memories make us who we are?
- John Harris, bioethicist, University of Manchester
- Others tbc
All events are free unless specified but must be booked in advance.
For further information the Wellcome Collection website or call 020 7611 2222.
Image: Claude Cahun self portrait; Jersey Heritage Collections
Senior Media Officer (Wellcome Collection)
T 020 7611 8612
Notes to editors
The Identity Project: The 'Identity' exhibition and events programme are part of the Wellcome Trust's wider season of activity on the theme of identity, called The Identity Project. Running from November 2009 to summer 2010, the season will include performances, films, artworks, exhibitions and discussion events taking place across the UK. The season will also feature an online activity that anyone can take part in no matter where they are. Further details will be released over the coming months.
The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing.
The Wellcome Trust's former headquarters, the Wellcome Building on London's Euston Road, has been redesigned by Hopkins Architects to become a new £30 million public venue. Free to all, Wellcome Collection explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future. The building comprises three galleries, a public events space, the Wellcome Library, a café, a bookshop, conference facilities and a members' club.