Emma Rourke: Superhuman at the Wellcome Collection

Are you superhuman? Most people’s innate reaction would be to refute such a claim. “Superhuman” evokes images of superheroes, creations of human fantasy, and imagination, but what if we took the view that everyday objects such as glasses, hearing aids, and lipstick constituted forms of human enhancement? This insightful and thought-provoking exhibition of over 100 artefacts, artworks, and videos seeks to explore the past, present, and future of human enhancement from a medical, cultural, and ethical perspective.

Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are presented with the tale of Icarus; a tale of failed ambition and hubris. In the quest to make ourselves better; brighter, stronger, and more beautiful, does there come a point at which we must stop? Defining such a point is difficult, and the malleability of human attitudes to what is acceptable is illustrated with the presentation of headlines announcing the birth of Louise Brown, the test tube baby. Despite widespread apprehension at the time, in vitro fertilisation is now a routine NHS procedure.

The historical artefacts and medical objects displayed can largely be divided into those seeking to compensate for deficiency, and those designed to improve performance. Prosthetic limbs feature heavily in the former, ranging from an early prosthetic toe discovered in an Egyptian tomb, through to more recent prostheses including those designed for self-expression rather than functionality. The exhibition also features future developments and limbs that may be controlled by the nervous system.

The blurring of boundaries between man and machine is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. As we ingest compounds and implant devices it becomes more difficult to draw the distinction between what is human and what is not. In the videos, one expert questions our right to call our achievements our own if we are using enhancements. Another argues it is our duty and responsibility to continue to develop and enhance our capabilities. What about creativity? What about individuality? These are things that may be sacrificed in the quest for the universal ideal.

The uneven playing field created when some use enhancements and others do not is best demonstrated by doping in sport. The exhibition showcases a wide range of interventions used to enhance sporting performance, including the “Whizzinator”—a plastic penis and dried drug-free urine samples designed to ensure athletes using performance enhancing drugs would pass the drugs tests.

Featuring contributions from scientists and medics, ethicists, artists, and commentators, this exhibition takes a truly fascinating look at our ceaseless desire and innumerable attempts at self-improvement. It represents an area of science that is exciting and terrifying in roughly equal measure and encourages the visitor to reflect on their own attitudes to the human body.

The Superhuman exhibition runs at the Wellcome Collection from the 19 July to the 16 October 2012. Admission is free.

Emma Rourke is a BMJ Clegg scholar and an intercalating medical student at Newcastle University.