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Science Museum unveils new artwork by Jenny Holzer for Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries

As the Science Museum reopens its doors to the public it unveils a new artwork by celebrated artist Jenny Holzer, for display in the museum’s major galleries Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries.

This is the only stonework by Holzer in a UK public collection and was commissioned by the museum, with the support of Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation, to mark a year since the opening of the Medicine Galleries. 

Holzer’s artwork – For Science – comprises two benches that offer a place of respite and reflection in the gallery. Constructed from Silver Cloud granite, their texture and tone evoke the feel of memorials and monuments. 

The benches are inscribed with words from two writers who experienced medical treatment: Susan Sontag and Paul Kalanithi. The texts engraved into the benches are taken from Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor from 1978 – ‘Illness is the night-side of life’ – and Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air from 2016 – ‘What kind of life exists without language?’. 

Both authors were writing in response to living with cancer, and together the texts provide a personal insight into the clinical nature of medical care. Sontag was an influential American writer, philosopher and critic who wrote Illness as Metaphor while being treated for breast cancer. Her opening lines introduce the idea that we are citizens of two countries throughout our lives – the realms of the well and the sick – both of which carry different stereotypes due to social views of illness. Kalanithi was a successful Indian-American neurosurgeon whose memoir was published after his death from lung cancer. His diagnosis flipped his experience from that of doctor to patient and led him to reflect on the moral and ethical quandaries integral to being a doctor. His quotation comes from his reflection on the deep responsibility of conducting brain surgery and the importance of respecting the humanity of a patient through treatment and recovery.

‘When words are carved in stone, they can be touched, they can be read with the hand, they might be perceived differently than when on the page.’ – Jenny Holzer.

Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, said: ‘I’ve long been an admirer of Jenny Holzer’s work and am delighted we’ve commissioned a new work especially for our glorious Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries. As we re-open the Science Museum again to the public For Science will provide an opportunity for visitors to sit and reflect on the remarkable stories and objects on display in the largest medical galleries in the world.’ 

Dr. Katy Barrett, Science Museum Curator of Art Collections, said: ‘For Science fits perfectly within the series of artworks on display in the galleries, from sculptures by Marc Quinn, Eleanor Crook and Studio Roso, to a photography series by Sian Davey. Together the art commissions give visitors a bold, visual way to connect with the objects and stories on display. The juxtaposition of the solid, secure granite benches with Holzer’s choice of words serves to emphasise the fragility of the human body and the social context of medicine, and speaks both to the universality of medical experiences and their deeply personal impact.’

For Science sits alongside a series of artworks commissioned for the galleries that act as powerful visual interventions into the galleries’ themes and give visitors different ways to connect with the objects and stories on display.

Other artworks commissioned for the space include Self-Conscious Gene by Marc Quinn, a monumental bronze sculpture inspired by the tattooed body of model Rick Genest, which greets visitors as they enter the galleries; Bloom by Studio Roso, an aerial sculpture which - presciently given the events of 2020 - represents the spread of pandemic diseases through populations using a large network of propellers that spin, glow, and change colour; Santa Medicina by Eleanor Crook, a beautiful and intriguing bronze sculpture of a figure that is both surgeon and saint, and which encourages visitors to contemplate their relationship with mortality; and When medicine defines what’s ‘normal’, a series of life size portraits of patients and practitioners by award-winning photographer Siân Davey.

Together, the series of artworks commissioned for the galleries illustrate the enduring power of images in both art and medicine to make us look differently at the human body and our experiences of medicine. 

The commission and acquisition of For Science was made possible with Art Fund support, with additional support from the Henry Moore Foundation.

Jenny Waldman, Director, Art Fund, said: ‘Jenny Holzer is a master of interventions in public spaces and her affecting new sculpture will be a highlight of the Science Museum’s Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries. This October the Science Museum was named one of five winners of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020, with the judges recognising these exceptional new galleries. The museum reopening will allow more visitors to be excited, inspired and delighted by them.’

For further information or to arrange interviews please contact Senior Press Officer Freya Barry on or 020 7942 4327. 

Images are available to download.

Notes to editors

About the Science Museum Group

The Science Museum Group is the world’s leading alliance of science museums, welcoming over five million visitors each year to five sites: the Science Museum in London; the National Railway Museum in York; the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester; the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford; and Locomotion in Shildon. 

We share the stories of innovations and people that shaped our world and are transforming our futures, constantly reinterpreting our astonishingly diverse collection of 7.3 million items spanning science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Standout objects include the record-breaking locomotive Flying Scotsman, Richard Arkwright’s textile machinery, Alan Turing’s Pilot ACE computer and the equipment used by John Logie Baird to transmit the first ever television pictures.

Our mission is to inspire futures - igniting curiosity among people of all ages and backgrounds. Each year, our museums attract more than 600,000 visits by education groups, while our touring exhibition programme and websites bring our creativity and scholarship to audiences across the globe.            

About Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries

Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries are a magnificent new home for the most significant medical collections in the world. More than 3,000 medical artefacts from the extraordinary collections of Henry Wellcome and the Science Museum Group are now on free public display in the world’s largest medical galleries. 

About Jenny Holzer

For more than 40 years, Jenny Holzer has presented her astringent ideas, arguments, and sorrows in public places and international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Her medium, whether formulated as a T-shirt, a plaque, or an LED sign, is writing, and the public dimension is integral to the delivery of her work. Starting in the 1970s with the New York City posters, and continuing through her recent light projections on landscape and architecture, her practice has rivalled ignorance and violence with humour, kindness, and courage. Holzer received the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1990, the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award in 1996, and the U.S. State Department’s International Medal of Arts in 2017. She holds honorary degrees from Williams College, the Rhode Island School of Design, The New School, and Smith College. She lives and works in New York.

About Art Fund

Art Fund is the national fundraising charity for art. It provides millions of pounds every year to help museums to acquire and share works of art across the UK, further the professional development of their curators, and inspire more people to visit and enjoy their public programmes. In response to Covid-19 Art Fund has made £2 million in adapted funding available to support museums through reopening and beyond, including Respond and Reimagine grants to help meet immediate need and reimagine future ways of working. Art Fund is independently funded, supported by the 159,000 members who buy the National Art Pass, who enjoy free entry to over 240 museums, galleries and historic places, 50% off major exhibitions, and receive Art Quarterly magazine. Art Fund also supports museums through its annual prize, Art Fund Museum of the Year. In a unique edition of the prize for 2020, Art Fund responded to the unprecedented challenges that all museums are facing by selecting five winners and increasing the prize money to £200,000. The winners are Aberdeen Art Gallery; Gairloch Museum; Science Museum; South London Gallery; and Towner Eastbourne.

ArtFund website

About the other art commissions in Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries

Self-Conscious Gene by Marc Quinn 

On entering Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries visitors will be greeted by a 3.5m high bronze cast statue of the late Canadian artist, actor and model Rick Genest (also known as Zombie Boy). Self-Conscious Gene has been designed by sculptor Marc Quinn, one of the leading artists of his generation. Marc came to prominence in 1991 with his sculpture Self (1991): a cast of the artist’s head made from ten pints of his own frozen blood. Other critically acclaimed works include Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005), exhibited on the fourth plinth at London’s Trafalgar Square.

Marc’s sculptures, paintings and drawings explore the relationships between art and science, man and nature, and the human body and the perception of beauty. He was inspired to create the sculpture of Rick after becoming aware of his personal experiences of health and illness. The work depicts Rick holding a medical anatomy book, evoking the illustrated publications displayed throughout this gallery. Combining this medical imagery with Rick’s street-art tattoos, Marc illustrates how academic and popular culture combine to shape how we think about a ‘normal’ body.

‘I think to have this sculpture of Rick at the museum is a perfect link between the past and the present, between the [Wellcome] collection and the real world. And between this rarefied environment of the museum and the world as it is now.’ - Marc Quinn.

When medicine defines what’s ‘normal’ project with Siân Davey

Within the Medicine and Bodies gallery visitors will encounter a series of portraits by award-winning photographer Siân Davey. Following a 15-year career as a psychotherapist in private practice, Siân launched a career in photography in 2014. Her work draws on her experiences as a psychotherapist and mother with family and community as central themes to her work.

Many of the Medicine Galleries’ objects and topics present a medicalised perspective on bodies and health and in recognition of this the museum launched the When medicine defines what’s ‘normal’ project to explore within the galleries what it means to people when they and their bodies ‘fall outside the norm’. Individuals involved with the project worked with Siân to capture their experiences of medicine and her work provides a personal, human context to the medical innovations displayed in the galleries. 

Siân was also commissioned to capture portraits of a series of UK individuals working with the museum for the Medicine and Treatments gallery, each chosen to ask a question about medical treatment. The gallery examines the medical challenges of living in an increasingly urbanised world, the impact of infectious diseases and how our behaviour can affect our health. In this gallery, Siân’s portraits illuminate the human side of treatment and illness, highlighting the universal impact of medicine in all our lives.

Bloom by Studio Roso

For the Medicine and Communities gallery the museum commissioned Studio Roso, a creative partnership between Danish designers Sophie Nielsen and Rolf Knudsen, to design a work that evokes the movement of an epidemic. The studio fuses backgrounds in architecture, art and design, making work that radiates the ephemeral nature of our environment. 

Bloom is an aerial sculpture that echoes the often mesmerising and beautiful diagrams used to visualise and interpret the circulation of infectious disease. Bloom has taken on new meaning given the pandemic and plays on the notion of air being the carrier and the ‘active’ part in an epidemic system, evoking the movement of a disease as it floats ominously through the air.

‘If you blow on a propeller, it will start spinning and, in turn, create its own airflow.  It’s this playful analogy that we use to tell the serious story of how disease spreads, which can be caused by as simple a thing as breathing air.  We cannot see it, but it travels far and fast.’ – Studio Roso.

Santa Medicina by Eleanor Crook

The contemplative Faith, Hope and Fear gallery explores the trust we place in medicine and features cultural and religious items that represent hopes and fears about our health. The gallery also features sculptor Eleanor Crook’s artwork Santa Medicina. Eleanor Crook is a British sculptor with a special interest in mortality, anatomy and pathology and her artwork in the galleries looks at our personal relationships with both medicine and faith as sources of healing. 

Santa Medicina is a beautiful and intriguing bronze sculpture of a figure that is both surgeon and saint. The hands of the figure are life casts from the eminent Cardiac Surgeon Francis Wells and the figure wears a rosary cast from one belonging to a monk from Lourdes signalling the intersection between ecclesiastical faith and medical trust explored in this gallery. The sculpture’s ornate bronze surgeon’s gown is covered in symbols of health and belief and shelters a vulnerable wax figure, offering healing through both medicine and faith. When designing the gown, Eleanor included medical symbols that held personal meaning for the curators who worked on the galleries. The sculpture makes the clinical personal, in a gallery that prompts visitors to consider the emotional impact of medical treatment and care.

‘I offer Santa Medicina as a patron saint for all who ever placed their hopes in the Science of Medicine:  a defender against pain, sickness and mortality who faces down death with kindness and technology. We trust her endless ingenuity to keep our body stitched firmly to our soul, and when the end comes, to share that body with the living by transplantation.’ – Eleanor Crook

Partners and supporters for Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries:

About Wellcome

Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research.  We are a politically and financially independent foundation.

Wellcome website

About The National Lottery 

Since The National Lottery began in 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community. Over the last 25 years, the Science Museum has received nearly £34 million of funding from The National Lottery, helping  to fund galleries (Making the Modern World, Information Age and Science City 1550 – 1800: The Linbury Gallery), support exhibitions (Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care, 2017) and acquire objects (Helen Sharman’s spacesuit). Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries are the latest example of how The National Lottery has helped support science and education, with more than £310 million (£310.6 million) of National Lottery funding having been awarded to science museums across the UK over the past 25 years, to institutions including The National Space Centre in Leicester, Glasgow Science Centre and Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre in Cheshire.

About GSK

GSK is a science-led global healthcare company with a special purpose: to help people do more, feel better, live longer. For further information please visit the GSK website.

About Wolfson

The Wolfson Foundation is an independent charity that supports and promotes excellence in the fields of science, health, education and the arts and humanities. Since it was established in 1955, over £900 million (£1.9 billion in real terms) has been awarded to more than 11,000 projects throughout the UK, all on the basis of expert review. Twitter: @wolfsonfdn

About Vitabiotics

Vitabiotics is a British company committed to human health and research which has pioneered advances in nutritional healthcare for nearly 50 years. As the UK’s No.1 vitamin company, Vitabiotics has created a unique portfolio of products at the forefront of scientific developments in key sectors, with no fewer than ten brands in the top 20 VMS brands in the UK, including Pregnacare, Wellman and Wellwoman. Vitabiotics is widely acknowledged as leaders in innovation and in 2018 became the first vitamin company to twice receive the Queen’s Award for Innovation, awarded for its ground breaking original published clinical research. Vitabiotics exports to over 100 countries, and has also received the Queen’s Awards for International Trade on two occasions. Designed to provide maximum efficacy by supporting the human body in its own natural processes, each product is developed using the latest research available and is produced to the highest pharmaceutical standards.

Vitabiotics website

About The Observer 

The Observer is the world's oldest Sunday newspaper, bringing readers a weekly independent perspective on current affairs. Find extensive coverage of culture, science and the arts in its award-winning magazines and supplements.

About Discover South Kensington

Discover South Kensington brings together the Science Museum and other leading cultural and educational organisations to promote innovation and learning. South Kensington is the home of science, arts and inspiration. Discovery is at the core of what happens here and there is so much to explore every day.

Discover South Kensington website

Part of the Science Museum Group