01 March 2010
BioethicistAppeared in BioNews 547
Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK
Can you identify yourself? How? By your name, sex, religion, by what you do, or the relationships you form? These are the types of unenviable and arguably unanswerable questions the Wellcome Trust asks in its current Exhibition 8 Rooms, 9 Lives. The exhibition does not set out to answer questions about identity (and with good reason). However, wandering through the myriad of rooms the exhibition displays, through a series of individual life stories, brings to life at least some of the various challenges posed by the notion of identity.
As the name suggests the exhibition is divided into eight rooms. Each room offers a unique exploration of identity by focussing on one (though often more) life story, which has provided a significant contribution to our perceptions of identity.
The initial appearance of the exhibition is wooden-bare room exteriors with little focussed direction. In retrospect, this lack of obvious route to follow perhaps, for some people, added to the ambience and ultimate conclusions posed by the search for identity.
Four of the rooms in the exhibition provide the public with a very physical portrayal of identity. The first of these rooms contained exhibits relating to Francis Galton, who was fascinated with fingerprints and their use as identity markers. One hundred years later Alec Jeffrey's (whose story is displayed in an adjoining room to Galton's) still believes a similar premise. Jeffrey's was the pioneer of DNA profiling, and the interesting forensic DNA exhibits in this room really emphasized Jeffrey's keen belief in the physical nature of identity. Caution, however, should be made when placing identity solely within the realms of science, as the room of Franz Joseph Gall powerfully highlights through its multitude of plaster skull exhibits. Gall believed in the controversial and now absurd study of phrenology- that the shape and size of the skull could tell us about a person's identity.
A beautiful and colourful display of baby and child photos depicting Charlotte and Emily Hinch in the twins' room helped the public to challenge the nature of individual identity. These 'twins', born three years apart and raised as sisters due to modern IVF assisted the public to question what creates the 'sameness' of identical twins, and how this 'sameness' plays a role in identity development.
Overall, I found these four rooms well designed, well laid out, and thoroughly informative. However, if you came to these rooms expecting a deeper and more complex view of identity you would have been a little disappointed.
The remainder of the exhibition presented the journey of identity as a more personal, cultural and/or social phenomenon. For me, these latter rooms were the far more interesting aspect of the exhibition and encapsulated the ideas of artists, diary writers, and the like.
My tour of this section began with an array of striking black and white photos taken by the photographer, writer and artist, Claude Cahun. These memorable images evocatively depicted Cahun's remarkable struggle to locate a gender identity beyond that expected by social convention. The collection of film clips from Fiona Shaw's acting career provided the basis of visual and audio exhibits in the next room, demonstrating to the wondering public the intriguing way in which actors can seemingly so easily shift between various characters.
A slightly different notion of identity was explored in the diary room, which contained the diaries of Samuel Pepys as well as a fascinating collection of other 'ordinary peoples' diaries, both literally - on a shelf for you to browse through, as well as on display. It also, interestingly (if that is the correct word to use), contained television excerpts from the Big Brother Diary room. Unfortunately, Clive Wearing's diary of a musician who lacks the ability to form new memories was probably one of the only exhibits that started to grapple with the complexity of ideas that truly surround concepts of identity.
April Ashley was one of the first men in Britain to have a sex change, and the room that journeyed through his/her life via an array of photographs, newspaper articles and interview excerpts was a truly astonishing story of sexual identity, and most definitely the highlight of my visit.
In sum, I enjoyed the exhibition, which gives an interesting and informative display of the notions of identity. As I travelled through the exhibition I particularly liked the scattering of various mirrors, which reminded the public to constantly challenge and define themselves. The choice of rooms clearly resonated the tensions between identities' physical and social sides. It would have been nice, however, to see a little more focus on some of the more thought provoking aspects of identity. I wanted to leave with a multitude of perplexing questions buzzing around my mind and in this sense the exhibition failed to achieve.
See Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives for further details.