Sleeping and Dreaming


Sleep can be uncertain and dreams so surprising. This very unpredictability makes Sleeping and Dreaming perfect curatorial territory for the Wellcome Collection, London's brave venue where science, art and culture converge.

This exhibition lets you ponder an early electroencephalogram machine, peer at a nightmarish vision by Francisco de Goya, survey alarm clocks made in four different centuries, watch a cataplectic fit unfold, find the Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel film Un Chien Andalou on continuous loop and wish you owned a Hizamakura clip-on pillow, to make your desk more comfortable for a nap.

From a central corridor the visitor steps off into the intimacy of dark, spotlit antechambers, each addressing the show's central themes. As a narcoleptic visited by inspiring hallucinations while slipping into sleep, I particularly enjoyed the recess exploring the creativity that may flow from dreams. Here one can listen to 'Yesterday', which Paul McCartney apparently woke up humming, view a cast of Cyclopoma spinosum (a fossil fish that Swiss-born zoologist Louis Agassiz claimed to have reconstructed in his sleep) and admire Otto Loewi's Nobel certificate, awarded in 1936 for his dream-inspired discovery of neurotransmitters.

Restless reveries: a long-exposure photograph captures a subject's movements during sleep. Credit: N. KLINGER

Aristotle and Freud make understated appearances, allowing room for other scientific responses to sleeping and dreaming. Most of these are anecdotal. The rich artistic and cultural interpretations, by contrast, have greater impact.

There is a lively presence of contemporary art, with the central space occupied by two intriguing pieces. At one end, German photographer Nils Klinger captures sleep in a single still by leaving the shutter open on his slumbering subject for the time it takes a candle, the sole light source, to burn down ('Die Schlafenden', pictured). At the other, London-based sculptor Laura Ford has installed two kneeling child-like figures with donkeys' heads “to recall the fantastical slumbers of A Midsummer Night's Dream”. The combination makes a disturbing piece.

Sleeping and Dreaming is a result of a collaboration between the Wellcome Collection and its German analogue, the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden, from which the exhibition has just transferred. Both are a result of visionary philanthropy — pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome in Britain and industrialist and oral-hygiene pioneer Karl August Lingner in Germany.

The Wellcome Collection offers a place to “consider what it means to be human” and the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum aspires to reveal mankind's “multilayered cultural, physical, and psychological nature”. I await their next joint venture, War and Medicine, with interest.