Trust puts the self on show

Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives

Wellcome Collection, London Until 6 April 2010

A maze of corridors winds through featureless partition walls, adorned only by mirrors ranging from the exotic (Etruscan artefacts from the collection of Sigmund Freud) and the surreal (a digital 'time-lapse' mirror in which one's past movements materialize belatedly, like a ghost) to the banal (a cheap, plastic shaving mirror once belonging to actor Michael York). The corridors feed into eight rooms, each exploring an aspect of the knotty question of who we are.

Identity launches a series of national events organized by UK science-funding body the Wellcome Trust. At this showing, Ken Arnold, head of public programmes at the Wellcome Collection in London, announced that the upcoming tenth anniversary of the draft human genome seemed a timely moment to step back with a mix of medicine, popular culture and high art, designed to get at a “dauntingly broad” question. “We quickly found that philosophy and neuroscience really didn't have answers to some very basic questions about identity,” said one of the co-curators, Hugh Aldersey-Williams. “Meanwhile, biology, society and law find themselves increasingly in conflict over these basic issues.” Their strategy in tackling the vast subject was to choose eight topics, each introduced by a figurehead personality.

One of these is geneticist Alec Jeffreys. Behind glass are artefacts from his childhood: a well-loved copy of Biggles Works It Out; a school report displaying all A grades (including 19.5 out of 20 in science), apart from a B in writing and a C+ in physical training and games (“tries hard”). In another case, the trappings of Jeffreys' scientific life are arrayed like ancient relics: a battered Geiger counter, an X-ray film with scattered black bands; a pivotal Nature paper (Nature 317, 818–819; 1985). Among these everyday tangibles, Jeffreys's eureka moment is mapped with remarkable precision: “At 9 a.m. on Monday 15 September 1985, he found what he was looking for,” says the placard. “By afternoon he had coined the phrase 'DNA fingerprinting'.”

Francis Galton and Alec Jeffreys (centre) both pioneered fingerprinting: the first using ink, the latter, DNA. Credit: WELLCOME IMAGES

Unlike the other isolated rooms, Jeffreys's is fused with that of Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who pioneered fingerprinting as a means of identification. Aldersey-Williams confesses to an attempt to draw “cheeky parallels” between the trivialities of the two men. Thus, the childhood memorabilia of Galton includes a worn copy of the Iliad and a letter to a relative, in which the four-year-old brags about being able to read “any English book” and recite “all the Latin substantives”. Galton's slant on identity was all about phenotype: on display are the composite photographs with which he tried to distil the facial essence of particular groups: criminals, asylum patients, Baptist ministers — even scientists. Further parallels are introduced in the room devoted to physiologist Franz Joseph Gall, which is full of the trappings of phrenology — moulds of crania and masks of faces, including those of Voltaire and Isaac Newton. These are juxtaposed with videos of scans using magnetic resonance imaging, which show areas of the brain lighting up during difficult decision-making or jazz improvisation — the sort of modern phrenology of which Gall might have approved.

Other rooms explore the perceptions of self from a less scientific vantage. One displays diaries, including that of Samuel Pepys and of Clive Wearing, a pianist with anterograde amnesia whose inability to form new memories means that every line reflects perfect immediacy, as if recording the first moment of his life. Visitors are invited to sit down in the actual Big Brother chair and mingle with traces of D-list celebrity sweat. There is a room about twins. In it, two identical twins struggle to distinguish themselves as they age, but the series of photos culminates in an adult pose that is unconsciously mirror-image: the result, we are told, of an egg that split early on in development.

The genetics of gender is addressed in a room about April Ashley, one of the first people in Britain to have a complete sex-change operation. A succession of press clippings charts not the transformation of someone from male to female, but rather the relentless battle of someone who always thought she was a woman. This paper trail ends in a retrospective change of gender on Ashley's birth certificate — a reinventing of biological history that might feel vaguely uncomfortable to the average visitor. Yet the recent public outrage on behalf of Caster Semenya, the world-champion middle-distance runner whose gender is still in dispute, shows that many of us are prepared to define sex by means other than strictly genetic.

Co-curator James Peto admits that, at the beginning, he thought covering a topic such as identity was completely overwhelming. “You can only scratch away at little bits and hopefully raise enough questions for people to start finding answers for themselves.”

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Rohn, J. Trust puts the self on show. Nature 462, 851–852 (2009).

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