Wellcome Collection has reopened its doors with a phased programme that explores how we can care for ourselves and each other, and asks: What does it mean to be human, now?

Throughout history, pandemics have been powerful engines of change, exposing inequalities in the distribution of health and wealth. This reopening programme explores the connections between 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 Human, the 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, it will bring 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.

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 will present 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 historical collection display Medicine Man will feature a new audio intervention by artist and music director Busty Beatz of Hot Brown Honey and curator Bianca Manu. This intervention will restage elements of the temporary project they launched in the gallery in 2017As part of a longer-term programme to confront and reappraise the colonial history of Wellcome’s collections, artists have been invited to create new texts and artworks response to objects in the Medicine Man gallery.

Launching in November and running until March 2021, 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 our relationship to our own bodies and those around us and what the future may hold.

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 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.

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.

In addition, 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.

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

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