From Atoms To Patterns At London's Wellcome Collection

By Dan James | 16 July 2008
shows an image of a plate with a pattern upon it

Plate based on the crystal structure of beryl. Peter Wall, designer, for Wedgwood, part of the Festival Pattern Group, Festival of Britain, 1951. © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Exhibition review: Dan James enjoys a curious matching of science and art from post-war Britain at the Wellcome Collection, London.

It would be interesting to know what Oscar Wilde would have thought about the latest temporary exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. Wilde once said: “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life." The Festival Pattern Group would probably have disagreed.

From Atoms to Patterns runs from 24 April to 10 August 2008 and tells us an intriguing tale of how inspiration for design can come from almost anywhere. Take yourself back to 1951. Not long after World War II, much of London was still in ruins; the Festival of Britain was a national exhibition and an attempt to aid the feeling of recovery from the war.

shows an image of a tie with a pattern upon it

Tie based on structure of aluminium hydroxide, designed by George Reynolds for Vanners and Fennell Ltd. © Wellcome Images

Science joined forces with art and design for the exhibition when The Festival Pattern Group (FPG) showcased a unique project at the festival. The FPG was a collaboration between manufacturers and scientists. The scientists were x-ray crystallographers who basically started with a substance, crystallised it and then took an x-ray. As the scientists analysed their x-rays they built pictures of the atoms inside the crystals. It was a painstaking process in those days but the result was a beautiful set of patterns.

Manufacturers used these patterns to design and make a whole range of everyday products. This included clothes, furniture, carpets and even wallpaper. Indeed as you walk down the first aisle of the show Insulin-inspired wallpaper adorns the backdrop.

Anyone interested in science or design would find this exhibition fascinating. Children however would probably lose interest very quickly. If you tried to explain what x-ray crystallography means you would not be surprised if they were not begging for more information about the skill of diffraction photography.

shows a drawing of a pattern in blue and yellow

Coloured diagram showing the crystal structure of insulin, crystallographer Dr Dorothy Hodgkin. Used by the Festival Pattern Group, Festival of Britain, 1951. © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The displays are packed with examples from the FPG’s output. 28 manufacturers were involved in the project including the likes of ICI, Dunlop and Wedgewood, all of which were selected to complement each other.

Some products were mass-produced with commercial success: in fact if you are in your late thirties or older, you may find some of the items strangely familiar. The circular shapes on the carpet which you used to crawl and run around in the 1960’s may have actually have had some significance after all; you may have been wriggling around a pattern of haemoglobin (a constituent of blood).

shows an image of a red and white pattern on a fabric

Artificial silk dress fabric based on the structure of horse methaemoglobin, designed by S.M. Slade for British Celanese. © Wellcome Library, London

Max Perutz was one of the scientist contributors to the FPG project. He went on later to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962 for his studies of haemoglobin. Other high profile scientists included William Henry Bragg who also shared a Nobel prize with his son for physics. Interestingly, the scientists were an anonymous group at the time supposedly to protect their scientific reputations.

A noticeable feature of temporary exhibitions at The Wellcome collection are the events they run in parallel with the displays. You can generally explore the exhibition subject matter further by listening to speakers or contributing to debates at associated events. These further interactions around the exhibitions are informative and engaging.

shows an image of a geometrically patterned fabric

Furnishing fabric based on crystal structure of orthoclase, produced by Old Bleach Linen Company (crystallographer Dr W.H. Taylor), Festival of Britain, 1951. © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Staff at the Wellcome Collection clearly recognise the demanding nature of their visitors. Today's museum goers want to see, touch, hear, question and be entertained. The online offering is also very good and a book has been published to accompany the exhibition.

One small criticism though: when completing a walk through the show it was not clear that extra video coverage was available on the website. Despite this, the venue recently celebrated its first birthday with 300,000 visitors under its belt. With shows like this - numbers are likely to keep growing.

See exhibits from the show online, plus added background information.

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