Three things greet us at the outset of Electricity: The Spark of Life, an ambitious new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in central London. An amber pendant, carved around 550 BC to resemble a frog. A 4th-century BC terracotta plate, decorated with a painting of a torpedo fish. And an engraving, created in 1731, depicting Jupiter, the Roman god of thunder and lightning, on the cusp of revealing himself, in all his divine splendour, to his mortal lover Semele, who is about to be burned to a crisp.
What are these diverse artefacts doing here? In each case, the answer, though not immediately obvious, is provided by a short label, packed with fascinating trivia of the “Well, I never!” variety.
Take the amber frog. It turns out that ancient Greek philosophers knew that rubbing amber with animal fur would unleash spontaneous sparks. The image of a torpedo fish, or electric ray, is present because, in the ancient world, this animal had medicinal uses – its capacity to produce a stunning electric discharge was harnessed as an early form of electrotherapy, to treat headaches and numb the pain of childbirth.
The image of Jupiter and Semele, meanwhile, evokes a time, before the Enlightenment, when electricity (in the form of thunderbolts) was only dimly understood, as a wrathful and capricious divine force capable of starting fires, causing fatalities, and generally wreaking havoc and destruction.
As an introduction to a vast subject – nothing less, as the initial wall panel puts it, hyperbolically, than “the story of life itself” – this is a little scattershot. Yet setting the tone in such a pithy fashion is bold and thought-provoking. It also reflects the approach of the show in general.
Mounted in collaboration with two other venues (the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry), Electricity: The Spark of Life offers a self-consciously selective journey through the history of mankind’s relationship with electricity. Broadly chronological, and featuring more than 100 objects, it is divided into three sections – Generation, Supply, and Consumption – each of which contains a new commission by a contemporary artist.
The first part plunges us into the Enlightenment, when “electricians” – as electrical experimenters were then known – first unlocked some of the secrets of this mysterious force, which previously had been observed, but little understood.
We learn about the invention of the Leyden jar (a device for storing electrical charge). A funny little 19th-century painting, by an unknown artist, documents electrostatic generators or “friction machines”: important instruments in the study of electricity.
A beautiful late-18th-century object known as an Aurora globe, meanwhile, designed by the English instrument maker John Cuthbertson, emulated the light effects of the Aurora Borealis. I wish the curators had staged a demonstration, using a replica.
Thankfully (to my mind, at least), the show is not exclusively devoted to the paraphernalia and apparatus of long-ago experiments in forgotten laboratories, as pleasing as much of this hardware is (many of the wood-and-brass objects call to mind sculptures by Brancusi). There are also many engaging moments that illuminate responses to electricity in art and culture.
Thus, we see a frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein, which was inspired by the experiments of the Italian physician Luigi Galvani, who applied static electricity to the nerves and muscles of a dead frog, causing it to move. Thanks to Galvanism, frogs play a starring role in the history of electricity – so the amber frog at the start is doubly appropriate.
There is also an edition of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s sci-fi novel The Coming Race (1871), which describes a fictional substance inspired by electricity called “Vril”, capable of imparting special powers. This is shown alongside a bizarre 1891 advertisement for the beef extract Bovril, which takes its name from a combination of “bovine” and Bulwer-Lytton’s “Vril”. Captioned “Bovril by Electrocution”, this sinister ad depicts cattle sitting upright in electric chairs (presumably, in the 1890s, this new-fangled electrical method of execution was something to shout about). It is a remarkable thing – a dark, ready-made, proto-Surrealist image in the manner of later collages by Max Ernst – though quite why anyone ever wished to drink Bovril after encountering it is beyond me.
Subsequent sections proceed in a similar fashion, moving deftly between ideas and important moments in cultural and scientific history. Everything is elegantly and intelligently presented, as the overall narrative shifts from the understanding of electricity as a cryptic, implacable force, to one that is now an unexceptional part of everyday modern life.
Truthfully, though, I find it hard to get too passionate about exhibitions like this. While the Wellcome Collection seeks to explore connections between medicine, science and art, there is little memorable art on show: the quality of the visual and material side of things is, frankly, subjugated to storytelling, ideas and information. (A couple of slick “rayographs”, commissioned from Man Ray by a Parisian electricity company, are an exception.) With its panoply of engravings, woodcuts and antiquated books, this is, visually, a muted show.
Rather, like other exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection (which styles itself as a “free destination for the incurably curious”), Electricity is primarily interested in imparting surprising facts. The etymology of Bovril is a quintessential example of the sort of trivia in which the show abounds.
This, then, is the exhibition equivalent of QI, the BBC’s popular quiz show for boffins. After a while, I found myself hankering for something greater than a profusion of titbits that, one day, might come in handy during a pub quiz.
Still, I recognise that, for many people, this won’t sound like a terrible thing. After all, what’s not to like about discovering interesting stuff?
From Feb 23 until June 25; information: 020 7611 2222 or at The Wellcome Collection.