What do you do every day to make you superhuman? Put on a batsuit? Maybe wear glasses? Or take the contraceptive pill?

Wellcome Collection's latest exhibition, Superhuman, aims to investigate just that: what people do to help them function beyond nature.

It does so by doing what the Wellcome Collection does best: rummaging around for the strangest medical, scientific and cultural artefacts which, in this case, humans have been using to make themselves better since Egyptian times.

superhuman A series of photographs from 1887, showing a double-amputee move from a chair


A Victorian dildo, an iPhone and a nose prosthesis for a 19th-century syphilis victim are just some of them. Despite the ease at which this exhibition could descend into freakshowery, however, it doesn't.

For one thing, there's plenty of good video art present. Charlotte Jarvis's short film shows men longing for, and receiving, fictional plastic surgery that will transform them into superheroes. Regina Jose Galindo's piece is more blunt: a naked woman becoming a brutal canvas for a plastic surgeon's felt-tip as he turns her slim body into the image of 'normality'.

Superhuman touches on issues that are incredibly pertinent today. While the exhibition demonstrates that we've used enhancements for hundreds, if not thousands of years, it now feels a very apt time to consider this issue in London. Even if the Paralympians and Olympians weren't descending on the Capital in a matter of days, our hunger for being better than nature intended is everywhere.

superhuman 11-year-old Philippa Smeed using her feet to drink due to shortened arms.


Jodie Marsh springs to mind while watching Francesca Steele's video. The artist is also a bodybuilder, whose work is intrinscially linked with her almost obscenely tanned, rippling body.

The false penis of the 'Wizzinator' brings both drug addicts and potentially cheating athletes to mind, while even as something as everyday as a 1972 Nike trainer shows how we all try to enhance ourselves without really thinking about it.

superhuman A 1938 poster about 'virile manhood: the official organ of the Laurance Institute of Health & Stamina'


There is a lot that is very thought-provoking about the show. The gathered miniature prostheses for Thalidomide children in one corner are incredibly poignant, as are the videos and images which accompany them. Another display contrasts the power of comic book superheros with the fragility of people who try to emulate them in real life. Videos of athletes are all the more amazing upon realising they are running with disabilities.

In a summer of superhuman achievements and countless cultural events devoted to them, there's a good chance this show could trump the efforts of our other 'Cultural Olympiads' - no prostheses required.

Superhuman is on at Wellcome Collection until 16 October

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  • Whizzinator (tan) Manufactured by Alternative Lifestyle Systems This device was originally designed and marketed as a way of delivering clean urine samples. The Whizzinator was sold as a kit complete with dried urine and syringe, heater packs (to keep the urine at body temperature), a false penis (available in several skin tones including white, tan, latino, brown, and black) and instruction manual. The original manufacturers, Puck Technology, were prosecuted for conspiracy to defraud the US Government. The device is now marketed as a 'wet sex' toy. IMAGE: Wellcome Library, London

  • Knitted breast prosthesis. Pattern by Lactation Consultants of Great Britain. Knitted by Louise Sargent. Some cancer survivors who are waiting for, or have decided against surgical reconstruction find that knitted breast prostheses offer greater comfort than silicone alternatives. A charity was set up in the USA in 2007 to make and distribute knitted breasts. IMAGE: Knitted by Louise Sargent

  • Front cover of book 'I. Cyborg' by Kevin Warwick for Superhuman exhibition. IMAGE: Wellcome Library, London

  • A woman using a dildo in the form of a root vegetable suspended from the branch of a tree. 19th century IMAGE: Wellcome Library, London

  • Hand coloured illustration of a prosthetic nose. IMAGE: Wellcome Library, London

  • Hand painted wood engraving IMAGE: Wellcome Library, London

  • The human body with physiological activities represented as factory procedures. Colour lithograph after F. Kahn, ca. 1930 IMAGE: Wellcome Library

  • The left forearm and hand of this prosthetic arm are fully articulated. The arm was purchased from the private collection of Noel Hamonic (active 1850-1928) by Henry Wellcome in 1928. When Hamonic collected the arm, it was thought to have belonged to Götz von Berlichingen (1480-1562). Berlichingen was a German knight who famously lost an arm at the battle of Landshut in 1503 but who subsequently had his armourer make a metal replacement. Research has shown that Berlichingen actually lost his right arm so it was unlikely that he would have owned this prosthetic left arm. maker: Unknown maker Place made: Germany IMAGE: Science Museum, London

  • These tortoiseshell spectacles fold into a matching, portable case. This has a cord attachment so it can be easily carried. Tortoiseshell was expensive and indicates a wealthy owner. The Chinese inscription on the case gives information about the maker: 'Mr. K.Y. Chui, manufacturer of ....crystal goods, glass-ware, and various kinds of spectacles. His business establishment was situated in the Long Life lane; outside the Peaceful Gate of the Canton province.' Spectacles may have been used in China as early as the 1100s. maker: Chui, K Y Place made: Canton, Canton, China IMAGE: Science Museum, London

  • Acoustic headband with ear trumpets, Europe, 1901-1930. Science Museum. IMAGE: Science Museum, London

  • IMAGE: Science Museum, London Lower limb prostheses, Roehampton, England, 1966. Credit: Science Museum, London

  • CO2 gas-powered artificial arms, Roehampton, England, 1963. IMAGE: Science Museum, London

  • Pair of artificial arms for a child Credit:Science Museum, London

  • Pair of artificial arms for a child Credit: Science Museum, London

  • Strength, and how to obtain it / by Eugen Sandow Credit: Wellcome Library, London

  • "X", the man with the X-ray eyes Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • The She-Hulk lives Credit:© and TM Marvel and Subs. Used with permission

  • The Sandell-Gray Figure Trainer Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • Don't waste your time or money on ROT! Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • Don't waste your time or money on ROT! Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • Virile manhood Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • Cartonnage (Prosthetic toe) Credit:The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Silver prosthetic nose Credit:Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons

  • Pair of men's black leather spiked running shoes Credit:The Shoe Collection, Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

  • Nike Waffle Trainers Credit:The Shoe Collection, Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

  • Super Elevated ghillie shoes Credit:The Shoe Collection, Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

  • Fluoride poster Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • Full ivory denture Credit:British Dental Association Museum

  • Ivory denture with human teeth Credit:British Dental Association Museum

  • i-limb ultra prosthetic hand Credit:Touch Bionics®

  • i-limb ultra prosthetic hand Credit:Touch Bionics®

  • 'Daley Can', Lucozade poster with Daley Thompson Credit:Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives

  • Dianabol (Methandienone), 1972-1982 Credit:Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

  • Durabolin (Nandrolone), 1960-1961 Credit:Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

  • Strychnine Credit:Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

  • Viagra Credit:Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

  • Eleven year old Philippa Smeed Credit:Photograph by Frank Hermann /The Sunday Times/NI Syndication

  • Donald Rodney, 'Psalms' 1997 Credit:The Estate of Donald G Rodney

  • Artificial limbs and amputation stumps Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • Artificial limbs and amputation stumps Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • Analysis and enrolment form Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • Charles Deane's diving demonstration at Portsmouth. Credit:Science Museum, London

  • Microchip implanted into the forearm of Prof. Kevin Warwick Credit:Wellcome Library, London

  • Pair of artificial legs for a child Credit:Science Museum, London

  • Iron artificial arm Credit:Science Museum, London

  • Acoustic headband with ear trumpets Credit:Science Museum. London

  • Ivory dildo Credit:Science Museum, London

  • Tortoiseshell spectacles plus case Credit:Science Museum, London

  • Tortoiseshell spectacles plus case Credit:Science Museum, London

  • Still from Metalosis Maligna Credit:Floris Kaayk