When it was announced that Wellcome Collection was going to be undertaking a dramatic building project, the point of it was incredibly clear. The 1932 stone cocoon, originally the Wellcome Institute, opened as Wellcome Collection in June 2007. Five years later, the building saw over half a million visitors annually. The stones were beginning to burst at the seams with the thousands of imaginations that were captivated by ideas of what it means to be human.
More spaces were to open to the public, with a whole new gallery space to double our offer; a new youth studio for projects co-created with 14-19 year olds; a revamp of the esteemed Wellcome Library; an innovative reimagining of the Reading Room as a new interactive space; and a whole new restaurant. All of which meant that we could become, more than ever, the free destination for the incurably curious.
You may think that we use the word ‘curious’ a lot, but there’s nothing sums us up quite as well. It’s our main proposition and the delightfully vague conjuration that Wellcome Collection offers, no strings attached: simply a space for your curiosity to wander, meander and ponder. What would happen to the feel of the place once the building works started? How visible would these works be? How noisy would it be? How could we keep regular visitors interested in us? And most importantly, how could we make sure we kept Wellcome Collection’s spirit alive?
We worked collaboratively with an agency called True North and came up with the idea of taking our visitors on a journey with us. We weren’t planning on literally going anywhere, but as the plan of works was refined and mapped out, we could see there was a long road ahead.
And so we set off. As the hoardings started to appear across the building, we started to decorate them. Armed with our twists on building site lingo (‘Business as (un)usual’), a mash up of Wellcome Library images and objects started appearing amongst industrial colours and imagery. Fantastically, it all looked like it was meant to be there. We set up an interactive timeline to give a sense of scale, created a magnetic arrivals board and let ourselves loose on signage as spaces took turns in being the focus of building activity.
Pride of place in the Medicine Now collection, we invited Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder to creatively respond to a series of weird and wonderful questions we posed on social media, under the guise of #CuriousConversations. We’d seen a couple of Rob’s drawings before, but once unleashed on your incredibly personal, touching and random tweets in response to each week’s question, his glorious illustration style leaped into its own and developed on its own journey to become a glorious body of work.
Soon it felt like we were running as normal. Temporary exhibitions popped up along our curious journey: the space that would become The Hub (our stimulating space for researchers and other creative minds to collaborate on a project around medicine, health and wellbeing) was commandeered to host ‘Foreign Bodies’ and ‘Thinking with the Body’. Whilst our main exhibition space was out of use (due to the vibrations and movement that could potentially damage objects and artworks) we even took ourselves out into the town, on our very own Curiosity Roadshow. We drove a converted Routemaster bus into Camden Lock Market and invited people to come aboard to look at our handling collection.
Towards the end of the project, the building works encountered an issue with the dramatic spiral staircase intended to link our new spaces together and encourage visitors to explore the full extent of the building. Schedules had to be redrawn and the upcoming Alice Anderson exhibition had to be postponed, or else potentially only be open to the public for a few weeks.
The decision was made to swing this around. Drawing upon the available objects in our stores and leaping forward with a new approach to interactive exhibits, curator Danielle Olsen was rallied into action, creating what we now know as ‘An Idiosyncratic A-Z of the Human Condition’. With one wall of an A-Z of objects and artworks and the opposite wall a mirror of interactive activities, what should have been a dormant space came alive with selfies, landscapes, fears, recordings, maps and votives.
An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition
This is when the idea of the ‘curious journey’ was most alive. What had started as a little jewel of an idea, turned into a glorious grey, black and yellow beast which gained momentum with slogans, shapes and modestly unapologetic disruption notices (our lifts, when out of service, declared ‘I’m taking a break from life’s ups and downs’) and almost became an exhibition in itself (we did have a couple of visitors looking for the ‘curious journey’ show).
A glimpse behind the hoarding
Our new spaces
But there’s something meaningful here, beyond the lists. Taking down those very letters ‘Join us on our curious journey’, it did feel that in some way the building project had made something of an exhibition of itself. Two years after it began, the idea designed to help communicate our reduced offer, closed gallery spaces and account for any dust and noise had instead taken us unsuspectingly to somewhere else. We were constantly curating and refining the artistic and functional nature of the messaging around the building. Although the idea of the curious journey has reached its final destination, I wonder if we’ll ever have the opportunity to develop another all-encompassing, creative take-over of the building and run with it, fast and flurrying, down Euston Road.
Fran is a Communications Officer at Wellcome Collection.