London’s Wellcome Collection Answers the Question: Who are we?

Posted on January 28th, 2010 by

The stylish modern building was the perfect escape from the rain for a short time on our last Friday here in London. Clean architectural lines and lots of steel and glass greeted us at the entrance. “The Wellcome Collection” stated the door facing Euston Road.  The high ceilings loomed as the tour guide introduced herself and set us off on a journey of self exploration through others, pushing us to find ourselves in these exhibits, and asking the question “What does it mean to be human?”

The Wellcome Trust, a charity funded genetic research group, opened up The Wellcome Collection in June 2007. The tagline and purpose of this new building is ‘a free destination for the incurably curious.’  Their newest exhibit, The Identity Project, opened in November 2009 and runs until April 2010. Along with the exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, the project includes discussions and speakers, drama and movies, live events, and online educational tools all on the subject of human identity.

The exhibit, Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives, we visited on Friday, January 22, 2010 brought us through the lives of nine people that were struggling, striving, extremely interested with, or letting others marvel at their identity. Some of these people looked at the science of identity, some just tried to define themselves, or they tried to step away from finite identities altogether. It aimed to tackle social and individual identity questions including: phrenology and brain imaging, gender and sexuality, race and prejudice, and identify performance; all in one and the exhibit did a pretty astounding job.

The exhibit itself was in one very large room and scattered throughout were the eight makeshift rooms, constructed of mostly plywood and large bright green beams that framed them. They weren’t particularly symmetrical or in any specific order, and although plain on the outside, the inside carried a lot of valuable information, an explanation of someone’s identity.  Scattered throughout the big room were mirrors for self reflection (in every sense), some mirrors were famous, some were too old to reflect, some were just big and plain, and one was even time delayed so your ghostly image was shown minutes after you walked by, but they all made you think about what you looked like, what your room would look like, what your identity would look like to exhibit goers.

Each of the nine lives helped tackle one or more of these questions. Claude Cahun was a photographer and writer who dealt with her identity by making it flexible. She made her name and appearance gender neutral, being adaptable to whatever the situation required, and neutrality always fit her. Franz Joseph Gall was a scientist and psychologist who investigated and expanded the field of phrenology, or measuring the bumps on the skull to decipher the skills and attributes the person had.  Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, tried to keep up with his cousin and like Gall looked at outward appearance (specifically facial features) to determine identity attributes. He also thought of the idea of fingerprinting for a truly individual record. Alec Jeffreys took this one step further, pioneering DNA profiling. This also became widespread in criminal investigations just as finger printing had. Samuel Pepys kept very descriptive and unembellished daily diary entries, giving us a look at his identity and the daily lives of those around him.  Fiona Shaw is a great actress, playing with identity for a living. Charlotte and Emily Hinch are twins that were born 3 years apart using the technology of in vitro fertilization. April Ashley, born a boy, had one of the first gender reassignments in Britain.

Although each of their stories is very important and interesting, the identity of gender seems to stand out from the visit to the exhibit, specifically the identities of April Ashley, Claude Cahun, and Fiona Shaw. The way these women performed gender was a great example of how flexible gender roles are. I feel that most people think gender is a black and white issue, where in fact there are many shades of gray. In the room dedicated to April Ashley, she mentions a gender rainbow, as opposed to just black and white (men and women) and how there are indeed some of every color.  She had always thought of herself as a woman, although not physically born one, and was very successful at being one. She was a fashion model for many years, was married for seven years, and is happily living out her autumn years today. The media “ousted” her as a transsexual the year after her surgery. Her marriage also ended because of the gender issue, when her husband claimed two men were not allowed to be married. Dealing with these shades of gray have always been difficult for the public to handle and Ashley’s life suffered from it.

Before her, Claude Cahun had a divergence from general social gender roles of a different kind. She never classified herself as anything but neutral, she was identified as by others as a lesbian, Jew, artist, photographer, writer, and politically aware. Most of her work was political or dealt with how she performed her identity and she was very interested in surrealism, an art movement that worked with the element of surprise and putting objects together that would not normally be seen that way. Early in her career she shaved her head and started wearing men’s slacks. She pushed the boundaries that locked gender identification in binary opposites. Her name was also ambiguous. Her work was marveled at and easily resonated with males and females because it demonstrated the fluidity of gender roles and gender performance.

Fiona Shaw is a great actress who began her screen work in 1983. She deals with embracing a new identity for each role as all actors do, and although not a method actor, you can see her transform into a role flawlessly. She has played many women and men on screen and stage. She was even Richard II in Shakespeare’s play of the same name when it was brought to the big screen. She blurs these lines of gender differently than others by brilliantly acting as men would.

The definitions for all the many gender identities that are possible, change constantly for the public, so they are almost useless labels, but it brings up the question of  whether two genders enough titles for this many identities? Is that just what we want as a public, things to look simple and straightforward? Is gender male and female or a complex spectrum? The exhibit left all these questions circling as I walked out and continued my effort to uncover my own ever-changing identity.


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