Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives – Wellcome Collection

Last Thursday I went to see Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives at the Wellcome Collection.

The eight rooms in question each explore a particular aspect of the vast topic that is ‘human identity’. Each anchors discussion by focussing on a person. Samuel Pepys for diaries and diarists, April Ashley for gender reassignment, the Hinch family for twins and so on.

I think it’s fair to say that each person will find that particular rooms resonate more with them than others. I found that I struggled with Fiona Shaw’s room (which explores the ability of an actor to inhabit new identities) but I had to actually force myself to leave April Ashley’s room so that I didn’t run out of time! By contrast, my boyfriend preferred the rooms and objects which revealed personal foibles or a more playful or vulnerable side to a personality – the room of diarists was a firm favourite for that reason, as was the revelation that as an undergraduate Sir Alec Jeffreys, DNA pioneer, had finally had a picture published in The Beano’s ‘Pets Corner’ section.

At the end is a questionnaire where you can reveal as much or as little as you like via a green booklet. I think if you filled it in in its entirety the reader would have a startlingly good picture of you and your life – I would be interested in how much information it’s normal to give and how much of that is accurate. For my part you can tell my bonsai tree’s name, the title I would give my autobiography, and that I can draw a pretty impressive spider even when none has been requested.

It’s a great exhibition which manages to break a huge and daunting subject into something comprehensible. It’s also full of unexpected and very human nuggets – Robert Hooke using a pisces symbol in his diary to secretly record all of his ejaculations, for example. I would also like to say that if you only have time for one room, make it April Ashley’s. The Wellcome collection shows her 35 year struggle with bureaucracy to gain official recognition of her gender as played out against the insensitive backdrop of media scrutiny and humiliating legal procedures and manages to provoke deeper consideration without hammering you over the head with The Issues. A fascinating room and a fascinating woman.

Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives is on at the Wellcome Collection until 6th April and you should go and see it.

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