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Death: A Self-Portrait - Wellcome Collection

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by Dominic Simpson (subscribe)
Freelance writer based in East London. Check out more of my writing at
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Death exhibition: fun for all the family
Death A Self Portrait exhibition entrance Wellcome Collection
The entrance to Death

Looking for some Christmas cheer in your life? Feeling festive as Xmas approaches? Well, you might not want to head down to the Wellcome Collection. Their gallery space is currently running a free exhibition called – wait for it – Death: A Self-Portrait, running until the 24th of February 2013, with the tag line "a friendly invitation to explore your own mortality this winter". While not the most cheerful subject at this time of year, it's certainly a profound experience, with the exhibition touching on a decidedly heavy subject.

Death A Self Portrait Wellcome Collection Otto Dix Shock Troops Advance Under Gas Richard Harris Collection
Otto Dix's Shock Troops Advance Under Gas (1924) (image: The Richard Harris Collection / Death: Wellcome Collection)

Ah yes, death. That mortal coil to which we must all shuffle off to at one point or other. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "the only things certain in life are death and taxes" (unless you're tax-dodging Starbucks, Google, Amazon, et. al., of course). The exhibition explores how different cultures around the world have reacted to the inevitable, with fascinating examples of contrasting iconography and attitudes around the globe. It is with death that art, science and medicine have somehow interlinked. The theme also continues to the Wellcome Collection's bookshop, which has a whole cheerful section on titles on death, to accompany the exhibition (pictured below).

Death A Self Portrait Wellcome Collection bookshop the thing about life is that one day you'll be dead david shields
No doubt this cheerful tome is already in your Christmas to-do list

Death A Self Portrait Wellcome Collection bookshop accompanying selection of titles on death
Death: A Self Portrait - the accompanying range of books in the Wellcome Collection's bookshop

Assembled by Richard Harris, a retired antique print dealer from Chicago, the exhibition has some 300 macabre works, ranging from paintings, historical artefacts, human remains, scientific specimens, various ephemera, and modern art installations. The latter includes a huge chandelier made from 3,000 plaster bones, and John Isaacs' somewhat grisly "Are You Still Mad At Me?" – a sculpture of a decayed and partially dismembered body. Nice.

Elsewhere, the visitor is assulted by images of Tibetan skull masks, Pacific island scarecrow grave guarders, and skeleton statues at shrines in Nepal (pictured).
Death A Self Portrait Wellcome Collection skeleton statue shrine Kathmandu Nepal
Skeleton statute at a shrine in Kathmandu, Nepal (photograph: Linda Connor / Wellcome Images)

Death A Self Portrait Wellcome Collection Mexican Day of the Dead skull
A Mexican Day of the Dead skull (design: Miguel Linares; image: Wellcome Collection website)
Meanwhile, 18th century anatomical drawings rub shoulders with images and artefacts (pictured left) from the annual Mexican Día de los Muertos – "Day of the Dead".

Skulls are placed at the centre of still-life paintings, juxtaposing the life depicted therein with a contemplation of mortality, and images abound of burial and mourning rituals. As the accompanying booklet explains, "the images on display provide a singular insight into the history of our eternal desire to make peace with death".

Death A Self Portrait Wellcome Collection family portraits skull faces
Family portraits with skull faces (image: Wellcome Collection website)

Each of the five rooms is based around an approach to death, with titles such as 'The Dance of Death' in Room 2 focusing on the Middle Ages in Europe, where the continent was ravaged by gruesome plague and famine. Paintings abound of humans and skeletons joined in the death dance, the ubiquitous fiddler between them. Room 3, meanwhile, is the charmingly-monikered 'Violent Death', while Room 4 focuses on what Sigmund Freud identified as the eternal conflict at the centre of human civilisation: the instincts towards life (Eros) and towards destruction (Thanatos).

One of the most jaw-dropping installations, though, isn't a picture or image of anything. Instead, it's an enormous cloud chart, covering the whole of the side of a wall, cataloguing the source of all deaths, with huge linking bubbles containing statistics for how many people have died from each. It makes for fascinating reading. By far the biggest is infectious diseases, with various sub-sections focusing on each specific disease, and how many people in turn those diseases have claimed. The 'war bubble', meanwhile, covers specific events (World War II, Iran-Iraq War, Vietnam war, etc.), while a section is devoted to the world's genocides – not just the Holocaust, but the Armenian Genocide, among others. It's astonishing to see from the figures just how small the amount of deaths are comparatively from these man-made events, even while huge, when contrasted to the immense amount of casualties of those who have succumbed to various diseases. Even more interesting is the contrast between road deaths and deaths on other forms of transport (with plane crashes barely registering).

If the exhibition sounds heavy going at this time of year, well – it is. But it's also profound and strange, and helps us get a better sense of how we deal with what will inevitably affect every one of us in the end. Death is the one facet of our existence that none of us can escape in the end, and the exhibition illustrates just how mankind has tried to deal with that fact.

Merry Christmas!
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Why? Because death is everywhere
When: Monday: closed; Tuesday-Wednesday: 10am-6pm; Thursday: 10am-10pm; Friday-Saturday: 10am-6pm; Sunday: 11am-6pm; Public Holidays: midday-6pm
Phone: 02076112222
Where: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE
Cost: Free
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