Press release

Electricity: The spark of life

From the structure of the atom to the function of our brains, an electric charge is hidden within every organism on earth. Electricity: The spark of life traces the story of humankind’s quest to understand, unlock and master the power of electricity. 

This major exhibition at Wellcome Collection shows how this invisible yet vital force is fundamental to human life and has captivated inventors, scientists and artists alike for centuries. It features three new commissions by international artists John Gerrard, Camille Henrot and Bill Morrison, and brings together over 100 objects from ancient spark-inducing amber and early electrostatic generators to radiographs, photographs, paintings, models and films. 

Electricity: The spark of life covers three core themes – generation, supply and consumption

‘Generation: The great invisible’ shows how our enduring fascination with electricity can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and our early encounters with natural wonders. It considers how the late 18th-century pioneers and philosophers revealed the physical presence of static electricity, and began to unravel its secrets. 

Objects include an electric eel specimen, items relating to the complex bioelectrical experiments undertaken by Galvani (1737–1798), and some of the very first devices designed to generate an electric charge. An early edition of Mary Shelley’s renowned Gothic novel is shown, demonstrating her interest in Galvani’s ideas about reanimation and the life-giving and death-dealing potential of electricity. Contemporary artist John Gerrard, known for his innovative works in digital media, has also taken inspiration from Galvani in a new commission developed specially for this exhibition

‘Supply: Wiring the world’ considers how scientists, inventors and innovators of the 19th century were responsible for harnessing, converting and storing electricity. Objects include one of the first batteries – a voltaic pile (1800-1824), and early 19th-century instruments demonstrating the conversion of electricity into movement, such as Barlow’s wheel 1889. 

The infamous ‘war of the currents’ fought between competing energy companies over the use and safety of direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC) is explored, as well as the establishment of London’s first electricity network in 1889, by Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti. Ferranti conducted a daring safety test by hammering into a live 10,000 volt cable at the world’s first high-voltage power station in Deptford. The original chisel and section of cable is shown in the exhibition alongside one of his notebooks, displayed publicly for the first time.

Original photographs from the 1920s show variations in the design of pylons as they became a feature of landscapes across the world. Man Ray’s surrealist Electricité photographs commissioned by the electrical board in Paris in 1931 demonstrate how companies have sought to popularise its use. Contemporary filmmaker Bill Morrison’s new work explores historical footage from the Electricity Council archive to consider the movement and networks of electricity and its profound interconnectedness with our daily lives.

‘Consumption: the silent servant’ considers how electricity has come to define the modern world. It features a new installation by the contemporary artist Camille Henrot, which considers our energy-dependent lifestyles. This work is shown alongside early examples of neon lighting and lightbulbs, photographs showing domestication of electricity and tea towels produced by the Electrical Association of Women in the 1930s. 

Developments in the application of electricity in healthcare are also explored. This includes a reproduction of one of the first radiographs by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen and advertisements promoting the supposed health-giving effects of electricity through new devices such as ‘electro-belts'. 

At a time when we are more reliant on electricity than ever before, this exhibition asks us to contemplate our ongoing relationship with electricity and imagine what the future might look like.

Electricity: The spark of life runs 23 February – 25 June 2017 at Wellcome Collection and is accompanied by a full programme of events at the museum. It is curated by Lucy Shanahan and Ruth Garde, Wellcome Collection, with Consultant Curator and Exhibition Originator Paul Bonaventura.

The exhibition has been produced in collaboration with Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands, and the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, UK. Following its presentation at Wellcome Collection, it will travel to both venues from summer 2017 onwards.

To coincide with the exhibition a new publication, A Practical Course in Personal Magnetism, has been published by Wellcome Collection and Profile Books, £7.99 hardback and eBook.