Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives
Identity, we quickly discovered, is a topic where philosophy and neuroscience have few real answers. Where does the self reside? How do you (or I) know you’re the same person you were five minutes or five years ago?
Biology finds itself increasingly at variance with society and the law. What is your sex? What is a twin? How alike are you to the person standing next to you? These questions are answered quite differently by these three..
Luckily, exhibitions are about objects that can animate such abstract questions. Hence the eight figureheads, who act as the gateway to a wider topic, but also show us fascinating and surprising aspects of their own lives.
Nine lives? Well, one of the rooms is dedicated to an exceptionally thought-provoking family of twins. That’s one answer. Another tells the story of April Ashley, who was born a boy. That’s another.
Another of the figureheads is the Victorian scientist, Francis Galton, the champion of anthropometrics, fingerprinting and eugenics. We have his composite photographs of criminals that he made in a vain attempt to identify the ‘criminal type’. But my favourite object is the will he wrote at the age of eight when he was sent away to boarding school, bequeathing ‘my Shells & Minerals’ to his older sister.
We placed him alongside Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA profiling - two scientists exploring identity a hundred years apart. We have the first DNA profiles and his knighthood, but also his cycling proficiency certificate and the drawing he sent in to the Beano - his first publication.
‘Identity is philosophically amorphous ... But the exhibition itself is sharply particular, homing in on individual people as hooks for much larger themes. Alone, it more than justifies the Wellcome’s description of itself: "A free destination for the incurably curious".’ Tom Sutcliffe, The Independent
‘Conceptual art with a concept for once’ Sir Christopher Frayling, Saturday Review, Radio 4
‘Often extraordinary and always fascinating ... this exhibition assembles everything from notebooks, diaries, drawings and photographs to scientific objects, models, letters and plastercasts. It creates a show that challenges us to examine what determines our sense of identity’ Times
‘Illuminating stuff’ Observer
‘Fascinating’ Wall Street Journal