How Can We Be Better Than We Are? Superhuman Answers These Questions and More


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Artificial Limbs for a Small Child

Pair of artificial arms for a child, Roehampton, England, 1964. Image supplied by Science Museum, London.

Decoded Science asked Ms Sargent about her favourite part of the exhibition, and she responded: “I always find it hard to identify a favourite area or object in an exhibition. I’ve been on a long journey with many of the objects from the very beginning of the planning stage of the exhibition, it’s just really great to see them all here! Having said that there are some moments that are particularly powerful in the exhibition, the artificial arms and legs developed for the young children affected by thalidomide, for example, which were technologically advanced but hard to use.

I’m also really thrilled to be including some really exciting major artworks in the exhibition: Revital Cohen’s Immortal for example, which is an assemblage of medical technologies developed to replace the function of human organs – a heart-lung machine, dialysis machine, a respirator, a cell saver and an infant incubator are all connected together to create an entirely mechanical representation of the human body. It’s a moving reminder of how our health is often reliant on these machines, while their size and complexity show just how sophisticated the human body is and how hard it is to replicate it’s function.

Meanwhile, Matthew Barney’s extraordinary CREMASTER 3 will be shown in it’s entirety alongside some intriguing prostheses developed for its star, Aimee Mullins.

We’ve also persuaded some of the country’s leading academics in the subject area to lend their voices to the exhibition in a series of short films which explore the potential next phase of human enhancement. It’s great to be able to share these ideas with the exhibition audience. The arguments they put forward certainly challenge some of my previously held ideas, and may prove surprising and perhaps controversial to some.”

Superhuman Exhibit – Highlights

Vivienne Westwood Super Elevated Ghillie Shoes

Super Elevated Ghillie Shoes by Vivienne Westwood. 1998. Image supplied by The Shoe Collection, Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

Decoded Science visited the exhibition and found many thought-provoking items on display, including those described here.

The display opens with a light-hearted look at everyday objects used to improve performance. The curator draws our attention to the benefits and dangers of their use: for example, supermodel Naomi Campbell took a less-than-elegant tumble on the catwalk while modelling Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Super Elevated Ghillie’ shoes.

On a more serious note Superhuman investigates the history of prosthetics from early Egyptian artificial limbs and medieval iron arms right through to hi-tech prosthetics.

Superhuman also features numerous works of art depicting enhanced physical capabilities and appearance, including video stills from Regina Jose Galindo’s video performance Recorte por la Linea (Cut Through the Line). In this performance, Galindo, one of Guatemala’s most acclaimed contemporary performance artists, stands naked while Dr. Billy Spence, respected Venezuelan surgeon, marks areas of her body that could be ‘improved’ by cosmetic surgery.

With the Olympics taking place in London, what better time could there be for examining performance-enhancing drugs such as Methandrostenolone (trade names Averbol, Dianabol, Danabol), and their detection? Visitors might be amused and fascinated by the Whizzinator. ‘Whizz’ is a slang word for amphetamine, and the Whizzinator was originally designed as a way of producing a ‘clean’ urine sample. The United States government prosecuted Puck Technology, the original manufacturers, for conspiracy to defraud. The kit contains a false penis (available in various skin tones), dried urine and a syringe, plus heater packs to keep the urine at body temperature.

Visit the Exhibition

Superhuman can be seen from 19th July to 16th October 2012. The exhibition is free and booking is not required. Further information can be obtained from the Wellcome Collection.


Wellcome Collection: Special Exhibitions. Superhuman. (2012). Accessed July 17, 2012.

Sargent, E., Editor.  Superhuman Exploring Human Enhancement from 600 BCE to 2050. (2012). Wellcome Collection 2012.

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