Review: Wellcome Collection's Vision Exhibition Is A Sight For Sore Eyes

In Plain Sight, Wellcome Collection ★★★★★

Review: Wellcome Collection's Vision Exhibition Is A Sight For Sore Eyes In Plain Sight, Wellcome Collection 5
Two people wear VR headsets in front of a screen with captions on it
A VR experience creates the experiences of a blind man in a park. Photography: Steven Pocock.

What's it like to be blind? A VR experience at Wellcome Collection's latest exhibition gives us a good feel for it.

A man who lost his sight narrates his experiences of a park: our ears prick up for the sounds of joggers, nearby traffic, and ducks squabbling on a pond. Each comes to life with pulses and outlines inside the VR headset; it's a stunning visualisation in what is a superb (and free) exhibition focused on vision, and how we see the world.

Elsewhere, the copy of a Chinese medical text from the 17th century lists out over 100 eye conditions and their treatments, while Ishihara tests for colour blindness get the viewer to spot numbers in among the red and green dots. Something that In Plain Sight does so well is to blend the historical and the contemporary; an Ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus on ceramic — used as a good luck charm — is positioned by Jon Rafman's Nine Eyes of Google Street View — a video piece stitching together oddities captured via Google's cameras, like a road blocked off with sheep, or a gun-toting street thug.   

A woman in bright red robes plays a steel drum. She's wearing very stylish, flowing sunglasses
Eyewear has evolved to become stylish, as musician Helen Epega shows us here. Courtesy of Helen Epega and artist Hassan Hajjaj.

We're reminded of the important role the NHS had in making eyewear available to anyone who needed it (pre-industrialisation, glasses were often seen as a sign of wealth). Of course, icons like Michael Caine and Jarvis Cocker went on to iconify the NHS glasses look, although perhaps both are outdone here by the effortlessly hip eyewear stylings of Nigerian/British opera singer Helen Epega.

Ever since the birth of photography, a sense of racial bias has existed; this is demonstrated with a Shirley card — an image of a white woman used for photo colour balancing. A multi-racial Shirley card was finally introduced in 1995.

People gaze up at eclipse through special specs
This snap is from the 'What We Wore' archive by Nina Manandhar. © Seana Gavin

Vitally, In Plain Sight caters for blind and partially sighted visitors. There is Braille signage, and visitors can get hands-on with a fair few exhibits, including a stylish garment by Alexandra Zsigmond made from 400 copper plates, each one embossed with a stylised eye.

Following a show largely focused on contemporary art, In Plain Sight marks a return to what Wellcome Collection does best — a detailed, well-rounded examination of a topic that stirs together art, science and history. It is, if you will, a sight for sore eyes. Be sure to get an eyeful of this visionary show.  

In Plain Sight at Wellcome Collection. Until 12 February, free.

Last Updated 25 October 2022