Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Your face is a room. I have lived there.
--Jane Draycott

Friday, July 2, 2010


Today didn’t go as planned, but it did mean I got to visit the Wellcome Collection (which I saw once before during their exhibition Medicine Man) and the Petrie Museum (for the first time). I also tried to see stuffed Jeremy Bentham who I have tried to see for years, but could not find him on the UCL campus.

The new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is Skin. I really like this museum/gallery as it is ultra-modern and thought-provoking with a wide range of objects (and it is free and always well-laid out). The Peruvian mummy who had been on display in the last exhibition was back, as well as some exquisite wax models, for example some way-too-lifelike ones of children with skin diseases. (What is with me and waxworks?) There was a sculpture/mask for someone recovering from cosmetic surgery, and in addition to that, I overheard a woman giving a tour talking about children growing up in orphanages with lack of touch. This all made me think of Phantom of the Opera (the poor Kay Phantom is never touched as an infant or child, even by his own mother. Surely this would validate what Christine says in the musical, “it’s in your soul / that the true distortion lies”).

As might be imagined, the preserved samples of skin with tattoos on them, collected from France between the 1880s and 1920s, were grimly fascinating (mostly of naked women but a curious one of a horse with a prize ribbon that said “1884”!). There were two books purported to be bound in human skin, one a treatise on virginity from the 17th century that was, according to the author’s foreword, bound in a virgin’s skin. And another supposedly bound in the skin of Crispus Attucks from the Boston Massacre, a token of respect, though the card said it most likely was not human skin.

I also liked the huge paintings from colonial South America supposedly demonstrating that the offspring of an Indian father and a European mother was okay, but that unions between Blacks and anyone else was bad. Really interesting that there was such an interest that this created a sub-genre of paintings. All bonkers, of course, as was the overtly racist 19th century soap ad showing a Black baby being washed and coming out white.

I don’t know why, but I quite liked the American film on skin and hygiene from 1926. Because the Wellcome Collection website is so good, you can watch it here.

I’d heard about the Petrie Museum from Simon Guerrier, and because I have visited lots of Egyptian collections around the world, I thought I might as well see it! Like the Egypt Centre in Swansea, it was quite small but absolutely full of objects. Unlike the Egypt Centre, which is rather modern in its design, the overwhelming amount of objects at the Petrie meant there were cases and cases full of early flints, bowls from all of the dynasties, and an enormous collection of jewellery from every period. I would have relished a bit more explanation, but as it is a working collection attached to a university, I understand it would have been a bit difficult. Nevertheless, I love ancient Egyptian objects and there were some noteworthy ones. Including probably the oldest surviving garment, a linen dress worn by a teenager and found in a pile of old rags in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Also a bead dress for a eight- or nine-year-old female dancer that was extremely provocative.

I always love seeing extant examples of Egyptian sandals (they’re so well-preserved!) and also found some razors (in different shapes for men and women). There was the skeleton of a girl buried in a giant bowl (the caption was rather more poetic and fanciful than explanatory). There was also, interestingly, a clump of “yellow hair” and pieces “of scalp,” I assume from the Ptolemaic period. And hidden all the way at the back, a Roman woman’s head with a mass of coiffed red hair. There were the usual shabtis, canopic jars, some nice Roman funerary portraits (though these were covered by a school project of giant pâpier-mâchéd shoes!).