The Wellcome Collection restores the wonder to electricity

The museum's new exhibition tracks mankind's complex relationship with electricity, from the Ancient Greeks to potential sustainable futures

Since the advent of domestic electric power in the mid-20th century, electricity has lost some of its mystique and allure. It has become tamed and typical, taken for granted rather than wondered at. Unequivocally this should not be the case. It will be a sad day indeed when lightning fails to startle.

More transfixing still, however, is the electricity that we don’t notice. Every object on earth contains an electric charge. Our bodies are no exception: the flow of ions causes muscle contraction, heartbeats and the activity of our brain.

Electricity’s essential role in the human body was the starting point for the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition. Electricity: The Spark of Life tracks mankind’s relationship with the energy form, from the ancient Greeks to the present day. Along the way it takes in Luigi Galvani, the pionner of electrophysiology; the “war of currents” between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison; and Man Ray’s Electricité series of photographs commissioned for the Paris electric board.

Divided thematically into sections that cover generation, supply and consumption, Electricity will also feature commissioned work from the artists John Gerrard, Camille Henrot and Bill Morrison.

Ahead of the exhibition’s opening next month, Jocks&Nerds talked to Ruth Garde, one of the show’s curators.

What drew you to the theme of electricity?

What first drew us to the theme of electricity is its significance within the body and within the history of medicine and human health. Our story is far broader than that, however, and actually looks at how electricity touches on virtually every aspect of our lives, not only within the physical landscape of our bodies, but also on the landscape of our streets, cities, and countryside, as well as its impact on our industrial, domestic, cultural and imaginative lives.

How did you begin to curate and structure a show on such a broad topic?

We structured the show around the three broad themes of Generation, Supply and Demand, as this was a neat way of encapsulating the journey of electricity into our homes and our lives. Moreover, these broad themes have allowed us to tell a wide array of stories using a wonderfully wide spectrum of objects, from scientific instruments to illustrated advertisements, from artworks to photographs of pylons, from lightbulbs to a first edition of Frankenstein.

When did people first come to be aware of electricity, and how they did initially understand it?

Natural phenomena of electricity was known and observed in classical Antiquity but they didn’t understand it as such. We find observations in the works of various classical writers regarding the phenomenon of being shocked by certain electric fish, such as the Torpedo fish. These fish were also used as a means of pain relief, during childbirth or for headaches.

Electricity was not really investigated scientifically until the 1700s, but part of that investigation did rely on experiments on electric fish. The exhibition includes a specimen of an electric eel as well as a lovely small illustration that tells a dramatic story about how electric eels were collected by [the German explorer] Alexander von Humboldt in 1800.

What proportion of items did you draw from the Wellcome Collection itself, and where else did you look for objects?

The vast bulk of the objects come from the three venues who have collaborated on this exhibition: Wellcome, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

Are there special difficulties in presenting a show about an intangible topic? How does one represent, say, lightning in the museum context?

By looking at our relationship with electricity in its widest sense we have been able to include a really varied spectrum of objects, from 18th century scientific instruments used in early electrical experiments, to prints, paintings and photographs, from light bulbs to early films in which electricity plays a central role. Although electricity as a force itself may be invisible, except in the form of sparks, there is a lot of material culture that relies on, transmits, is powered by or has been inspired by electricity.

In regards specifically to lightning, we have an 18th century engraving from Teylers museum featuring a depiction of Jupiter, god of thunder and lightning. Lightning also features in a short clip from a film version o Frankenstein, which also features in the exhibition.

Could you talk me through a handful of the exhibition's most surprising historical exhibits?

In the Generation section we have a gouache painting, which is a still life with an electrostatic generator and other early electrical instruments. This is very surprising to me because it has all the appearance of a 17th century Dutch still life painting, which usually feature flowers, fruit, and other domestic objects – but to see these scientific instruments alongside the flowers gives it a very unusual subject matter for a still life!

In the Supply section we have a series of photographs of transmission towers [pylons] from the 1920s that have never been exhibited before, and which feature images of the pylons actually being constructed. It reminds us that they haven’t always been such a normal, taken for granted feature of our landscape.

In the ‘Consumption’ section we have a reproduction of one of the first x-rays, featuring the hand of the wife of [x-ray discoverer] Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen.

Do you feel contemporary society takes the use of electricity as a power source for granted?

I think we have become very reliant on electricity and have come to see it as a convenient tool for our day-to-day needs. Many of us have come to see it as a mere utility. We have lost much of the wonder that early experimenters and audiences of electrical demonstrations experienced. I hope that this exhibition will allow visitors to re-engage with the fascination and drama of electricity, and that by doing so will allow people to think anew about their relationship to electricity.

How will the show address the environmental issues surrounding electricity?

The three artist commissions, which respond to the themes of Generation, Supply and Consumption respectively, each contain elements that can be interpreted in connection with environmental themes. Alongside this the exhibition also contains a number of objects relating to sustainable technologies of generating electricity, such as a print relating to an Archigram project for solar powered housing. The final section of the exhibition, which is an audio installation, will speak directly to environmental questions surrounding our future relationship with electricity and features a number of experts in the field of energy speaking about our place within “the grid”.