Categories: FeaturesUK

Happiness, a season of free exhibitions, events and activities exploring the complex theme of happiness.

This July Wellcome Collection will launch On Happiness, a season of free events, activities and two exhibitions – Joy and Tranquillity – which will bring together voices from across the cultural, scientific and spiritual fields to reflect on the elusive subject of happiness.

In this period of great instability, escalating infectious diseases, ecological concerns and rising levels of anxiety and depression worldwide, Wellcome Collection will examine the ways in which people find resilience, hope and even joy at times of duress. In response to seismic political and social upheavals
On Happiness will ask; how might we rebuild happiness for our current times?

From serenity to ecstasy, awe to comfort, happiness encompasses many different feelings, and has perplexed scholars for centuries. There has long been debate around the role of emotions, where they come from and how they are expressed, and whether they are innate or acquired, universal or culturally specific. Reflecting on the connections between these complex emotions, our bodies and health, On Happiness will offer audiences an opportunity to rethink how we feel good.

Wellcome Collection curators Laurie Britton Newell and George Vasey said: “As curators how do you tackle one of life’s most elusive and slippery concepts? Ideas about happiness change across cultures and history and are not universally felt or understood. But one certainty which has underpinned all of our research, is that everyone wants to feel good. We have been developing this project at a time of tremendous difficulty and uncertainty and it has become increasingly important to think about how we might reclaim happiness and make it fit for purpose now. The exhibitions will invite artists, scientists and our audiences to reflect on what makes us tranquil and what brings us joy.”

At the heart of the On Happiness season will be the concurrent exhibitions Joy and Tranquillity which will consider different routes to experiencing these positive feelings. From the uplifting sensations of dancing and laughter to the calm of being in nature and diary writing, the exhibitions will consider the effects of emotion on our self and others. Newly commissioned works and multi-sensory installations by contemporary artists including Jasleen Kaur, Chrystel Lebas, Harold Offeh, Amalia Pica, Stefanie Posavec and David Shrigley will be on display alongside historic objects dating back to the 15th century from Wellcome’s collection. The exhibitions will consider ideas from different schools of thought including neuroscience, religion and psychotherapy offering a range of perspectives on the connections between emotions and health.  

In addition to the exhibitions, the season will offer a varied programme beyond the museum and online. Stefanie Posavec’s interactive digital commission and playful wellbeing questionnaire Updating Happiness will invite participants to submit their answers to a growing archive of definitions of happiness. An audio guide and podcast will bring together interdisciplinary voices to explore the themes of the season.
On Happiness will also include Harold Offeh’s live dance-a-thon Joy Inside Our Tears; digital stories exploring happiness through the ages; artist in conversations, amongst many other free events and activities.


15 July 2021 – 9 January 2022
Gallery 1

Through immersive exhibits Tranquillity will present gentler states such as contentment, serenity, peace and balance, and will investigate themes including reverie, retreat and the calming effects of time spent in nature.

Two newly commissioned installations will explore different experiences of tranquillity. Visitors will be invited to relax in a yoga studio created by Jasleen Kaur whilst also reflecting on self-care practices and the systems of exploitation hidden within the wellness industry. Chrystel Lebas’ multi-sensory installation documents some of the oldest forests in the world, translating the awe of being in these ancient landscapes. Both projects ask us to think carefully about our own wellbeing and our interdependence on others and the natural environment.

At the centre of Tranquillity will be a room of contemporary artworks and historic artefacts, many drawn from Wellcome’s own collections, that examine approaches to regulating the body and balancing the mind. A rare English folding almanac used to diagnose ill-health in the middle ages; Toby Glanville’s photographs of allotments which capture the restorative benefits of gardening; and Octavia E. Butler’s notebooks revealing the author’s notes of self-reflection and encouragement, are just some of the objects which will examine the range of different approaches that help navigate our feelings and find greater equilibrium.  

15 July 2021 – 27 February 2022
Gallery 2

The Joy exhibition will explore heightened emotional states such as ecstasy, euphoria and pleasure through experiences including laughter, dancing and protest. Many of the works in the exhibition will explore joyful experiences as a way of releasing tension and helping to mitigate the impact of stress in the body.

A drawing from the 1400s illustrating Aristotle’s belief that senses were gateways of perception; an early Islamic medical encyclopedia from Iran suggesting a connection between intestinal and mental health; and a 17th century Chinese book indicating the different feelings associated with bodily organs, are amongst some of the Wellcome Collection items which will explore different theories of the role of emotion in and on the body.

Joy will include new artworks by Harold Offeh, Amalia Pica and David Shrigley which explore themes of resilience, humour and hope. The commissions will be shown alongside contemporary artworks and historic objects that focus on different paths to joy and its interconnection to sorrow. These works will demonstrate how we might move beyond the over simplistic concepts of happy and sad in order to create a more complex understanding of emotion.

Perspectives from poets, scientists, historians and activists will be situated throughout the gallery and will reflect on joy and the role it plays within our societies. Visitors will be invited to consider the ways in which communities have responded to challenging times with positivity, and how altruism often increases in the face of adversity. The exhibition will capture how different generations negotiate difficulty and reclaim joy on their own terms. 

Joy and Tranquillity are co-curated by Laurie Britton Newell and George Vasey as part of Wellcome Collection’s On Happiness season.

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