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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Review: Death- A (Critical) Self-portrait

It is important to bear in mind when reading any review written by a member of the Collective that we are museum professionals, and as such view exhibitions in a very different way to the general public. When we walk into a gallery, our eye is immediately drawn by an exposed socket, a poorly hung label, or a badly conserved object. I hope with that in mind my thoughts on the Wellcome Collection's current exhibition 'Death- A Self-portrait' will be a bit more in perspective.

It seems that these days the Wellcome had made quite a name for itself with it's blockbuster exhibitions. Medical history is in vogue, and the Wellcome with its resources, vast historic collections and penchant for merging medicine and cutting-edge art is well placed to be a hot spot in the museum world. After their Miracles & Charms exhibition in the autumn, I was expecting to be blown away by Death. And well, I was not.

The thematic rooms by room organisation of the exhibition seemed stilted, and every inch of surface was covered in frames. I was in information overload after the first room. Visiting as I was with other museum professionals, we were all slightly irked by the low height of the labels, and the interpretation of some of the art works (but using interpretive labels with art is in itself very contentious). On an aesthetic level, the art works exploring death throughout time and across cultures is very beautiful. Yet everything seems a bit less chic, a bit less 'Wellcome' with fake furniture and fire places.

Just when I was getting ready to right off the exhibition, I came to the last themed section of the exhibition called 'Commemoration". Here, contemporary art exploring death and ancestor worship in South America was contrasted with stunning objects from Tibet including gilded skull bowls. Now here is what the Wellcome is known for: bringing together fascinating material culture with innovative art from around the world. I had forgotten for a moment I was in the Wellcome at all.



Then again, every object in the exhibition is from an external collector, Richard Harris. And while I'm sure Mr. Harris and the (external) exhibition designers had a very fun time putting it all together, it just doesn't feel very much like the Wellcome team was involved. Maybe it's because everyone is busy now preparing for the Wellcome Collection's very exciting development project (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-10/24/wellcome-collection-extension) but Death feels imported.

This is looking at the exhibition from a very critical and museum-biaised perspective. I can guarantee if you come by to visit, you will be amazed by beautiful Goya sketches, gruesome pictures of turn of the century dissections, and some ambitious art. I only wish Death had that off-beat and chic energy the Wellcome is known for, that special something that could help it compete with the Museum of London's enormously successful Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men. Worth a visit, but this exhibition feels more like the Richard Harris show.

Death: A Self-Portrait is on at the Wellcome Collection from the 15th of November 2012 to the 24th February 2013. Free Admission. http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/death-a-self-portrait.aspx

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