Press release

Wellcome launches Contagious Cities

A major international collaboration including New York, London, Hong Kong and Geneva, exploring the physical, social and cultural effects of infectious disease featuring:

  • Brighton-based collective Blast Theory, the first artist residents of the World Health Organisation, Geneva.
  • Mariam Ghani, artist in residence in the New York Public Library and the Graduate Center, The City University of New York.
  • Angela Su, artist in residence at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, Hong Kong.

This autumn, Wellcome explores the role of urban areas in causing and controlling infectious disease in our densely-connected world. Contagious Cities invites its key partners to tell their cities’ unique stories of epidemics and how these diseases have shaped our cities physically, socially and culturally.

Contagious Cities supports locally grounded conversations around the global challenges of epidemic preparedness. It marks the centenary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was one of the most significant and wide-reaching international health crises of the twentieth century. A hundred years on, there remain serious flaws in the world’s capacity to prepare for and respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

The initial focus of the project will be in New York in September 2018, where Germ City: Microbes, and the Metropolis will open at the Museum of the City of New York, in collaboration with the New York Academy of Medicine. Germ City will focus on public health in an urban context and asks us to consider this port city’s battles with infectious disease from island containment methods for diseases such as tuberculosis in the nineteenth century, to the city’s response to Ebola in today’s densely-connected world. It features the work of Blast Theory, who will explore moments of uncertainty in public health decision making and the 2003 SARS epidemic. Mariam Ghani will look at the linguistic and visual metaphors we use to understand illness and how these change over time.

From September until Spring 2019, further Contagious Cities partners in New York will present public events. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Tenement Museum will offer a series of evening tours of its historic tenement buildings, telling stories that link themes of disease, medicine, immigration and reform in the lives of their former residents. The New York Public Library and the Graduate Center at CUNY will work together to present public events focussing on how stories of contagion are told.

In November 2018, Contagious Cities comes to the UK, in the form of a collaboration with BBC Radio 3: The Essay, part of the BBC’s year of history. In this series, five writers based in five cities will follow the path of a disease in each place, accompanied by historians and disease experts. The series includes Jamaican-born, New York-based writer Garnette Cadogan exploring the effect of cholera on New York in the nineteenth century; acclaimed author Frances Wilson, will focus on tuberculosis in London; and Okwiri Oduor in Nairobi, writing about HIV.

The third phase of Contagious Cities opens in Hong Kong in early 2019. Arguably the most connected city on the planet, Hong Kong’s experience of pandemics from plague in the nineteenth century to the more recent SARS outbreak in 2003 will be explored. Here, the focus will be on the cultural and social impacts of disease on its community, and will include an exhibition at the newly opened Tai Kwun: Centre for Heritage and Arts.

Hong Kong’s Oi! Street Art Space, who are working with local artists and its local community to explore experiences of contagion in Hong Kong based on recent epidemics. The Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, will launch a walking app of the Taipingshan Medical Heritage Trail.

Contagious Cities in an international collaborative project, developed by Wellcome taking place throughout 2018 and early 2019. It is initiated by Wellcome’s Creative Director, Ken Arnold, and delivered by Cultural Projects Manager Danielle Olsen working with partners across New York, London, Hong Kong and Geneva.