Engaging Libraries: Leeds Body Image and Mind project connecting into the Wellcome Collection and Wellcome Trust Library

June 7, 2018

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By Bronwyn Brady, Senior Librarian Manager (Art, Music, Central Lending), Leeds Libraries, and colleagues

In April some of us from our Body Image and Mind project had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Wellcome Trust Library in London. The purpose of the visit was to find out more about the theme of Body Image through some of the work at the Wellcome Trust, see what they are doing and see how we could link these into our collections.

We received a warm welcome when we arrived by Sol who is an Engagement Officer (Art and Health) and members of the front of house team.

Our tour began with the ‘Medicine Man’ and ‘Medicine Now’ exhibitions in the permanent gallery.  Here we were met by Rob Bidder who is a member of the Wellcome Collection’s exceptional visitor experience team and has developed a number of 30-minute engagement sessions focusing on objects and artworks in the permanent galleries.

Rob introduced us to ‘Medicine Now’, an exhibition which presents a range of ideas about science and medicine, with particular reference to the genome project and obesity. It was wonderful to handle the books containing the full human gene sequence: a library of the human genome. It challenged our perspective of human Body Image.

We then explored the work by artist John Isaacs called ‘I can’t help the way I feel’. This was an amorphous flesh-like sculpture with attributes of the human body and their most photographed image on Instagram. It reflects what Isaacs calls an ‘emotional landscape’ of someone who might glance in the mirror and see themselves in a certain way when in reality it is nothing of the sort.

We were interested in Rob’s experience of educational tours with groups from different backgrounds, and in how he had to be sensitive to their viewpoints and perception of each art piece.

Our next tour was of the Wellcome Library and Wellcome Collection. Here we were greeted by Danny Lees from the Library Experience and Engagement team, and Joanna Mills, a PHD student currently working with the Wellcome team. Danny gave us a personal tour of the public library and kindly referenced key collections and aspects of our Body Image and Mind project. The public library is free to join and is open to anyone interested in the history of health and medicine.

The library’s content on the theme of Body Image and Mind is vast, ranging from manuscripts and archives to artwork and film. To help us further with our research, Danny and Joanna had selected specific items from the archive with themes around Body Image and Mind, discussed their relevance and how the pieces can complement our project.  We were able to handle and discover some very special and rare valuable items in their collections.

Some of our favourite items included the 1709 Iconologia, or Moral emblems by Cesare Ripa,  the Ma’a’seh Toviyah, a Hebrew text depicting the human body and its functions compared to a six story house, and A man running. Photogravure after Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.

They had an ephemera box of diets from Victorian times to 20th century diets including Slimfast and Slimming World. This inspired us to gather our own ‘Riots not Diets’ Box, using diet remedies and preparations from the 19th century adverts and articles that we have in our collections.

We loved the Wellcome Library Reading Room. It was relaxing and inspiring with imagery and stimulants throughout. We were inspired by its design and layout inviting people to interact with its resources.  The Zines were also a fabulous resource for browsing and were in keeping with the relaxed and informative environment. The space itself felt Body Image and Mind positive.

We were drawn to an area where there was a mirror on the desk and the public were invited to draw what they saw in the mirror. This reminded us that you can do interactive activities to get the public thinking about their body image and mind in a library space, but also as part of an exhibition installation. At various intervals during the day, there is a call out in the Reading Room for anyone to join in an activity relating to an object or book in their collection.

After lunch we met Nelly Ekstrom from the visitor experience team who showed us round the gallery. Our tour began with an interesting introduction about Henry Solomon Wellcome who founded the Library based on his medical collections that he acquired throughout his life.

We had the opportunity to explore the paintings and art works, with all of the images relating to medical conditions or procedures. Some were acquired or commissioned by Henry Wellcome himself.

To bring alive the collections we were lucky to be able to handle some objects themed around the ideals of beauty. We were shown a Chinese ‘golden lily’ shoe for bound feet dating back to 1870. We were told about the culture and history around the item and how it relates to changing ideals of beauty. We also explored the connections to controlling women’s behaviour and the social economic factors that drive this and keep these traditions going.

In a case entitled ‘Treating yourself’ we were shown a display containing a variety of items including a brass corset dating back to the 1800’s. This piece sparked a great discussion around waist sizes and unrealistic body image goals that have been forced upon society, and the health implications on the mind and body such as cracking ribs and bleeding internal organs.

Our day came to a close with Clare Carlin for the Wellcome Youth Programmes team. She talked to us about the Youth Programme study days, one of which includes Body Image. We were interested in the medical, cultural, historical and fashion focus of the programme. Clare shared activities for workshops such as a debate on cosmetic surgery, objects and collection handling and creating a human enhancement out of recycled items.

Overall the visits gave us inspiration, discussion topics and an abundance of research into the themes of Body Image and Mind that we wouldn’t have previously considered.

We are keen to collaborate with Wellcome using their collections and our resources and continue this project taking a partnership forward. We look forward to continuing the conversation and looking at a way to collectively access and share resources to embolden the public to fully consider the implications of Body Image and Mind.


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