November 25, 2009 / 3:57 PM / 9 years ago

New show on identity asks why we are as we are

LONDON (Reuters) - A new show on human identity tackles one of life’s most fundamental questions — what, or who, is the real me?

Identical twin sisters Connie (R) and Kendra Millar from Niagra Falls, Ontario, walk under matching umbrellas during the final day of the 32nd annual Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio August 5, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Scientific advances from fingerprinting to DNA profiles provide some answers to what distinguishes one person from another, but they do little to address the fascination and anxiety people feel over their identity.

“Identity: 8 Rooms, 9 Lives” at the Wellcome Collection in central London focuses on nine individuals whose lives have been bound up in various issues associated with identity.

From “twins” born three years apart to sex change pioneer April Ashley and the Big Brother reality TV show, the exhibition centres on the themes of how and why people differ and to what extent they can change from the person they were at birth.

Ashley was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment in Britain, and the room dedicated to her story traces her often difficult path from man to woman and the legal and emotional complications it caused.

The exhibition features newspaper articles from a 1969 trial when Arthur Corbett successfully sought to have his marriage to Ashley annulled on the basis that Ashley had been born a male.

By ruling in Corbett’s favour, the court based its judgement on chromosomal evidence and disregarded Ashley’s psychological profile and surgery. It also set a precedent only overturned with the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act of 2004.


Another room tells the story of twins born into the Hinch family who were actually born nearly three years apart because they were separated through the freezing and delayed development of one embryo.

Twins hold particular fascination when considering identity, because their similar DNA profiles and frequent physical resemblance do not necessarily mean they grow up to replicate each other’s characters and interests.

Francis Galton is also featured in the exhibition for his proposal that humans must be divisible into types and his subsequent search to find a scientific basis for the theory.

The Victorian scientist was obsessed with measuring and analysing vast ranges of human traits, and, the show’s organisers argue, could be credited with inventing a “science of identity.”

“The focus (of the show) is a self-conscious attempt to think about who we are and how society pins down our place in the social mix,” said Ken Arnold, head of public programmes at the Wellcome Trust, a charity which funds research into human and animal health.

“It tries to capture that sense in which what the science tells us and what Big Brother tells us sort of have an influence on each other.”

The show, which runs from November 26 to April 6, 2010, is part of a wider project on identity being organised to mark the 10th anniversary of the Human Genome Project, or the sequencing of the human genome in 2000. That year also marked the first British series of the Big Brother television show which the Wellcome Trust associated with our desire to find out more about who we are.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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