I’ve just seen Wellcome Collection‘s wonderful new temporary exhibition Sleeping and Dreaming in their new house at 183 Euston Rd.

We sleep for about one third of our lives. No wonder therefore that sleeping and dreaming have provoked so much scientific curiosity and inspired so much imaginative creativity throughout the ages. 

Thus the Wellcome Collection introduces the exhibition made in cooperation with Deutsches Hygeine Museum in Dresden. The combination of huge collections and extensive research has resulted in an exhibition which impresses even an experienced museum visitor like me. I found myself staying in awe in front of all these fantastic objects and phenomena — scientific movies, measuring instruments, art works (and art videos), and sleeping (and keep-awake) drugs.

Among my personal favourites is the pictorial story of disc jockey Peter Tripp‘s record setting struggle in 1959 to keep awake in the studio for 201(!) hours in a row, while his hallucinations, aggressions etc are clinically described.

Another favourite is a radio programme about a man who died from sleeplessness; and yet another one is the rendering of Miyashita Fumio‘s sleep concerts in Japan in 1999, where busy people were stimulated to take a power nap.

The best feature in the exhibition, however, are the short scientific films from a German sleep laboratory in which we can follow people with severe sleep disorders — we see people who eat while they sleep and speak when sleep; we see a narcoleptic who suddenly falls asleep while he is sits fishing by a river; another falls a sleep in the middle of a conversation over a cup of coffee.

What about the artefacts? Well, they are absolutely fine, but generally speaking their function in the exhibition is to make concrete what is said about research into sleeping and dreaming. It’s the many films, photos and sound clips from the science and art worlds that dominate this dark exhibition universe.

So why is this exhibition so good?

  1. It brings up a very existential topic which we all want to know something about because it is about ourselves and our being in the world.
  2. The exhibition makes it clear, from the very start, that research into sleeping and dreaming has not come very far yet. The visitor is thus invited to participate in the inquiry instead of being presented with ready-made results only.
  3. Medicine, biology, culture, history and art are mixed — because it’s relevant for the topic at hand, and because sleeping and dreaming are both about biology and culture.
  4. The exhibition juxtaposes facts and fiction, because both have an impact on our understanding of sleeping and dreaming.

As a consequence Wellcome Collection utilises the exhibition medium as much as possible. Like no other medium, exhibitions can combine phenomena which do not normally belong together. It can simultaneously create impressions which are contradictory but nevertheless can stand side by side. And they are dealing with a topic which is better understood through an exhibition than by reading a book or surf the net.

This exhibition can be described — but is much better experienced directly. So, take a trip to London!  It is open until 9 March 2008. The catalogue is excellent too.

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