Artist's Statement: Helen Wilson-Roe on Henrietta Lacks' story at the Science Museum

| 15 November 2013

Artist’s Statement: Artist Helen Wilson-Roe has spent 16 years working with the family of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who passed away in the USA during the 1950s; her cells were taken without her permission and went on to contribute to a range of medical developments and vaccines, including genetics, cancer research, polio and IVF. The artwork is now on display at the Science Museum

A photo of a female artist sitting on a stool in between two portrait paintings
Artist Helen Wilson-Roe with two portraits of Lacks family members© Karen Brett
“When I read Henrietta’s story, I was heartbroken that this woman went completely unrecognised at the time and that the family were exploited. It was the exploitation that drove me as an artist. I thought, ‘I really want to meet this family.’

I never let that go. I never thought I wasn’t going to meet the family. I just thought, ‘how do I meet them?’

An image of a blue and black painting of a woman standing upright wearing a suit
She will Outlive us All© The Family of Henrietta Lacks
I like to tell stories I believe our children would never have heard of and might not be documented in a way that should be accessible to them.

I want them to grow up feeling a sense of pride that I didn’t really get. As a mixed-race child in predominantly white schools, I never heard any stories of black people who did well. I really want my kids to have access to these stories.

It wasn’t premeditated. I didn’t go to America thinking this is what I’m going to do. It just came from a discussion, a heated talk, with the family one evening.

It’s about the power of what you can do as an individual to make a difference in other people’s lives. You can give without having to give materialistically. You can give in other ways.

When I first saw the display case, I immediately thought, ‘right, we’re not going to get paintings in there, so it’s going to have to be something 3D.’

My challenge was getting a very big idea, a massive story with multi-layers, into a contained space.

I had to scale down instead of scaling up. That doesn’t work that well with me, being the kind of artist I am – my largeness wants to come out.

But constricting the space forced me to think of a different way of producing artwork, and I think it’s a really good way of challenging an artist.

An image of a montage in blue and black made up to depict the face of a woman
Montage of Henrietta Lacks created by Ben Taylor, Amalgam Modelmaking© Helen Wilson-Roe
I want visitors to come away with a sense that Henrietta somehow touched their lives.

I want them to come away with a sense of history, that in the 1950s this is what could have happened to you if you were black and went to hospital with cancer.

This has opened up a lot of stories to me, some of which, in regard to discrimination and racism, I find very personal. How far have we actually come? I find it difficult to accept that it’s actually not that far.

I would love to spend a whole year just painting the Lacks family.

There are other things I want to paint too – not just portraits, but the experience, the various stories they’ve told me. And the cells.

This ‘small’ stage I’m going through - the portraiture - is going to be lovely. It’s kind of increasing my vision for massive, great big beautiful cells.”

  • Exhibition runs until February 2014 in the Who Am I? gallery at the Science Museum, London. Suitable for all ages. Find out more.

You might also like:

Creatures invade Science Museum this November in a unique Robotic Safari Festival

Science Museum announces details of huge £15.6 million Information Age gallery

Science Museum reveals 3-D point cloud tour of closed Shipping Galleries

An image of two people installing a colourful 3D installation within a darkened gallery
Helen and Laurens Nockels installing their display in the Who Am I gallery© Science Museum London
An image of an installation artwork showing lots of red and blue cells against black
Fluorescently labelled HeLa cells with blue-stained proteins and red-stained DNA© Thomas Deerinck / Mark Ellisman, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, UCSD
An image of a sculpture of a baby lying in a cot
Severe polio could leave patients’ limbs and bodies twisted and paralysed. Teaching dolls like this one, which sits inside a full-length plaster cast, were used to explain polio treatments to children© Science Museum London
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Latest comment: >Make a comment
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.
    Museum Crush digest sign up ad