An exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is taking a look at eyesight, from how we see things to how we correct how we see things, and the cultural baggage we’ve wrapped that medical issue up in.
Beyond the obvious sign of vision difference – the spectacles, we tend to assume that everyone sees things the same — if I am looking at a building, it’s the same concrete, steel, and glass for everyone. But vision is interpretive, a combination of how the brain interprets signals from the eyes coupled with our own cultural background.
Things that are in plain sight, are often seen very differently by different people.
Beyond the obvious such as whether our eyes can focus the same way, where you see something appealing, another may see something appalling, and how we see the object is affected by that.
It’s this complexity that we so often overlook that the Wellcome Collection is looking at in its latest exhibition.
An exhibition about vision starts with the cultural background of vision, how the eye is all-seeing in religion and a window into the soul for the human.
A copper robe hangs on the wall, looking to all intents a priestly robe from antiquity, but is actually a modern work of art, and in each eye on the panels is an image of an infectious pathogen.
There’s a good drawing of justice being blind — in the notion that justice should apply equally to everyone. Incidentally, the statue of Justice on the Old Bailey is depicted with her eyes uncovered. Justice is not blind in the Old Bailey.
However, most of the exhibition is given over to the medical detection and treatment of eyesight issues. From the early testing machines to determine how degraded someone’s eyesight is through to the many varied forms of spectacles that have been created to treat it.
Some are preventative, such as the nearly solid glasses with tiny slots to be worn by explorers in winter landscapes, and the very steampunk looking blue glasses with side panels worn by steam train drivers.
Some treatments were less successful, and the myth of eye exercises is banished to where it belongs. An odd one was the use of eye snuff, which neither cured eyesight problems nor contained any actual snuff either. A large semicircular globe is an early form of magnifying glass for reading a book — and thank goodness for digital books that make it much easier to change the font size to something pleasant to read.
The exhibition also looks at the human vanity for glasses to look appealing as well as functional, as anyone subjected to taunting at school for having NHS glasses will appreciate.
As an exhibition, it’s a fascinating look at an aspect of how we perceive the world that many don’t give a second thought to until we reach an age when the visit to the opticians becomes a regular event.
The exhibition space is also sensibly tactile, with cork panels and physical guides in the flooring, a reminder that glasses can’t improve vision for everyone.
Entry is free.