What does it mean to be human, now?

Wellcome Collection reopens.

Wellcome Collection has reopened its doors with a programme that takes its cue from the question What does it mean to be human, now?  

Throughout history, pandemics have been powerful engines of change, exposing structural inequalities in the distribution of health and wealth. This reopening programme explores the intertwined connections between the individual, societal and global health and asks how Covid-19 is shaping our perceptions of the fault lines between them. 

Inspired by Wellcome Collection’s permanent display, Being Humanthe reopening programme considers how we can care for ourselves and for each other in the context of extraordinary cultural, social and political shifts. Over the coming months the programme brings multiple perspectives and voices both into the building and across Wellcome Collection’s digital platforms, based on the museum’s Covid-19 collecting and commissioning activities during 2020. 


During the reopening week, Wellcome Collection, in partnership with BBC Radio 4 and Goldsmiths, University of London will present the results of The Touch Test. The announcement of the study results will be accompanied by the radio series Anatomy of Touch from 5-9 October, presented by Claudia Hammond, inviting special guests to discuss the results of the study exploring changing attitudes towards the physical experience of touch. The Touch Test provides one of the most detailed sources of insight that we have on contemporary attitudes towards touch at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has brought the subject of touch into the heart of everyone’s lives. The programmes will be available to listen again on BBC Sounds.  

Wellcome Collection in partnership with Profile Books, has published How to Stay Sane in Age of Division, a short manifesto from award winning novelist and human rights advocate Elif Shafak. Written during lockdown, Shafak delves into the power of stories to bring us together and how listening to each other can nurture democracy, empathy and our faith in a kinder and wiser future. Wellcome Collection will host a live digital event on 8 October featuring Elif Shafak in conversation with writer Christie Watson. 

Opening on 10 November 2020:

The relationships between health professionals and those under their care has been brought into sharp focus during the pandemic, with medics stepping in where loved ones have been unable to be present. US artist Kerry Tribe’s video work Standardized Patient (2017) will draw attention to the importance of empathy in the medical encounter. The video installation centres on the use of simulated standardized’ patients, in the training of medical students. Actors help them to prepare for the human encounter that forms a critical part of any care relationship. The students face complex human experiences which are deeper than a simple diagnosis, from a young girl seeking advice on sexual health and a broken heart, to end of life care for a man estranged from his daughter. 

Artist Sop presents The Den, an installation of meditative sound works. As someone in the clinically extremely vulnerable category, Sop was forced to shield during the Covid-19 pandemic. In their installation at Wellcome Collection they narrate the process of building a secret den in a cemetery at the edges of a wood near where they live. The Den provides a space for respite, deeply connected to nature: a structure of protection and safety in which to take shelter. The Den is part of Wellcome Collection’s Covid-19 related commissions.  

The historical collection exhibition Medicine Man will reopen to the public on 10 November featuring a new audio intervention by artist and music director Busty Beatz of Hot Brown Honey and curator Bianca Manu. Artist Ranti Bam will also present new ceramic works in response to objects on display in the gallery. As part of a longer-term programme to confront and reappraise the colonial legacy of its collections, Wellcome Collection is inviting people to contribute written responses to an exhibit of their choice in the Medicine Man gallery. The first of these texts will be written by historian and UCL curator Subhadra Das. 

Launching winter 2020: 

Wellcome Collection and BALTIC, Gateshead are collaborating on a new podcast series exploring care and healing with contributions by scientists, activists, artists and community leaders. Each episode will focus on a distinct theme, including the body, touch, social healing, non-human ecosystems, and futures and temporality. 

In addition to Sop’s work Wellcome Collection has commissioned artists the vacuum cleaner and Khairani Barokka to develop works responding to the UK Government campaign Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives and how it has disproportionally impacted certain communities and individuals. These works will become part of Wellcome Collection’s Covid-19 collections and will reflect on the social, racial, economic and cultural impacts of the UK Government campaign. 

the vacuum cleaner in collaboration with Dr Emma Young, Dr Cecilia Wee and Newham’s Health workers, will create EXPOSURE, a series of film portraits of health professionals working in Newham Hospital during the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the hospitals with the highest death rate per capita in the UK. The portraits reveal their moral struggles, resulting in mental health issues and frustrations, but also their resilience, the value of peer support, and feelings of hope.   

Artist Khairani Barokka will present a new work exploring how the word hidden has manifested in the Covid-19 pandemic across different interlinked biomes to coincide with the launch of the new book, Documents of Contemporary Art: Health which features the artist’s work (edited by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, Curator, Wellcome Collection, co-published by Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press). 

Free tickets can be booked online at www.wellcomecollection.org alongside the latest information and guidance about how to visit.  

Photo: Yinka Shonibare, CBE, Refugee Astronaut, 2019. © Yinka Shonibare CBE.

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