Wellcome Assortment’s new present explores the cultural historical past of sight

More than two million people in the UK currently live with sight loss, while almost 70% of the population wear corrective eyewear or have had laser eye surgery, according to NHS figures.

Our relationship with sight extends well beyond the science behind it though; whether it’s the spiritual and cultural associations of eyes and blindness, or how intimately eyewear is bundled up with our personal identities.

Top: Digital image from the What We Wore archive by Nina Manandhar © Seana Gavin, Hungary, 1999. Above: Helen, The Venus Bushfires, 2011, by Hassan Hajjaj

Known for its work examining the connections between health and culture, In Plain Sight is the Wellcome Collection’s attempt to delve into the cultural history of vision. It follows on from the London museum’s previous shows, which have explored designing buildings with wellness in mind and the role of graphic design in ‘saving lives’.

Curated by Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar, the show is divided into four main themes: symbolism of the eye, bias in visual perception, eyewear and identity, and the interconnection between senses.

In Plain Sight Wellcome CollectionTurn pin spectacles with tinted double folding lenses, 1790-1850, Unknown Maker © Wellcome Collection
In Plain Sight Wellcome CollectionIncognito: anti AI mask, 2019, by Ewa Nowak © Noma Design Studio

The display brings together 140 historic artefacts and artworks from both Wellcome’s own collection and other museums and institutions – encompassing everything from myopic 13th-century monks to eyewear icons such as Iris Apfel.

It also features a series of new commissions, including immersive VR installation Notes on Blindness by Astrea XR, which is based on the recorded diary of theologian John Hull as he lost his eyesight, and Ewa Nowak’s Incognito Anti-AI mask, which allows the wearer’s face to become unrecognisable to surveillance cameras.

In Plain Sight Wellcome CollectionWitness, 2020, by Maisie Broadhead

Eyewear and identity loom large in the show, with Nina Manandhar’s youth style archive What We Wore offering a fascinating insight into the role of glasses beyond their inherent functionality.

Manandhar collected all of the photographs via an open call, with a view to documenting the public’s ever-evolving relationship with eyewear. Eagle-eyed visitors will also spot a couple of famous faces in the images, among them Don Letts and Jarvis Cocker.

In Plain Sight Wellcome CollectionHoana Poland, London, 1995
In Plain Sight Wellcome CollectionJanice Waltzer Curtis, London, 1965

Given the show’s subject matter, the team behind it have also taken a more inclusive approach to the broader exhibition design. The 3D design was led by OMMX, 2D graphics created by Sara De Bondt and Luke Gould, and lighting design by Satu Streatfield, all of whom participated in a series of focus groups with partially sighted and blind individuals over the course of 18 months.

These groups fed into the development of the exhibition from concept through to final design stages, with key features including a raised floor line to help visitors navigate the exhibit, rounded and cork clad edges on walls and cases, and fonts designed for greater legibility.

In Plain Sight Wellcome CollectionWomen modelling spectacles of unusual shapes, 1925 © Wellcome Collection

In Plain Sight is on display at the Wellcome Collection in London until February 12; wellcomecollection.org