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A chemical romance: Elements at Wellcome Collection

4 Nov, 2011

With many in the UK enjoying fireworks for Guy Fawkes night, we take a look back at a chemically-inspired event at Wellcome Collection earlier this year.

The curators of Elements, the latest late-night event from Wellcome Collection, hoped to stimulate debate on the nature of four key elements: iodine, oxygen, arsenic and mercury. As the pre-event publicity suggested, all of the featured elements can be harmful or helpful, depending on context – but how are they usually perceived? Is the distinction between precious and dangerous elements ever clear-cut? As should be expected from Wellcome Collection, the issue was explored with as much audience interaction as possible… and several explosions.

Co-curator Andrea Sella, Inorganic Chemist at UCL, demonstrating the properties of mercury

Elements sprawled across four floors of the Wellcome Collection building, from a series of ticketed talks on the lower ground floor to ‘Arsenic on Trial’ in the Reading Room of the Wellcome Library.

In the iodine area on the lower ground floor, which had ‘portraits of people with goitres’ as its decorative theme, a group of visitors watched keenly as miniature tornadoes whirled in test-tubes of a colourless iodine solution. Suddenly, the clear liquid changed to a deep indigo colour. ‘Ooh,’ said the crowd, as though they had seen a firework. Across the rest of the iodine messy play area, visitors were using iodine to measure the temperature, to disinfect themselves and to check various foods for starch. In the corner, a door to a darkened room discreetly advertised an iodine peepshow, where curious visitors could sneak a look at ‘the vibronic structure of iodine in all its magical glory’. Saucy!

In the Medicine Now gallery on the first floor, visitors were busily exploring oxygen. Oxygen is best known for making up 21 per cent of our atmosphere but is less widely known for one of its Elements uses: exploding sheep. Here, the ‘sheep’ were actually balls of cotton wool dipped in liquid oxygen, which exploded dramatically when they came into contact with a flame. (Would the effect would be the same on a larger – sheep-sized, say – scale? If you know, please educate me in the comments.) Elsewhere in the gallery, visitors could watch liquid oxygen react to a magnet or hook themselves up to an oxygen bar via a nasal cannula to test the alleged benefits of pure oxygen inhalation.

Breathing in pure oxygen at the oxygen bar

The interactive event ‘Arsenic on Trial’, by Spectrum Drama, was a literal judging of the nature of an element. Several historical figures, including Napoleon and Madame Bovary, gave evidence in a packed courtroom before onlookers were asked to act as jury and determine whether arsenic was ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. The trial was repeated three times throughout the evening; during the first, at least, the threat arsenic poses in the hands of ‘the impressionable, the naïve, the vicious or the merely unlucky’ outweighed its useful applications in paint and medicines, and a large majority declared the element to be guilty.

As the audience shuffled out after the verdict, everyone was directed through the syphilis ward stationed at the Library’s issue desks. As many an 18th-century sailor learnt the hard way, a single night with Venus could lead to a lifetime of mercury: before the development of antibiotics, syphilis was treated with toxic quicksilver. Thanks to make-up artist Julia HylandElements visitors could experience the gruesome pleasure of syphilitic wounds without the unfortunate permanence of the real thing.

Wound application at the syphilis ward

Mercury also appeared at Elements in the form of a rippling pool in the Lightbox on the first floor. More fascinating (to me, at least) was the mercury component of Henny Burnett’s multi-element, multi-media installation – a narrow cupboard filled with containers of liquid, all glowing gently under ultraviolet mercury lights. The liquids used were a mixture of everyday (e.g. tonic water and liquid laundry detergent) and uncommon (e.g. rhodamine and fluorescein), but without labels, they all looked equally alien.

Bret Syfert, the designer who created the print and motion graphic identity for Elements, was on hand with his camera to capture a short film covering some of the evening’s events. Happily, the video includes the ‘exploding sheep’ experiment in action:

Want more? Watch 3 films about each of the elements featured, and the scientists presenting them, in this post.

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