The Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition looks to understand play

Play Well will look at how play is an integral, but often overlooked, part of a well-functioning society.

From toys and action figures, to ball games and playground rhymes, play defines an age of innocence. But beyond fond childhood memories, do many of us consider the importance play has in our lives and wider social context?

A new exhibition from Wellcome Collection seeks to address this, pitching the idea of play as “not just inherent, but also a necessary element for culture.” A comprehensive look at the practice, Play Well is split into three sections: Nature/Nurture, Toys Like Us and Rules and Risk, and also features a newly commissioned play space by artist Adam James.

The exhibition design itself seeks to strike a balance between what senior curator Emily Sargent calls material “requiring the low-light museum treatment”, and a more playful surrounding environment.

Credit: Play Well, Wellcome Collection

This is done through a variety of visual cues, including a soft colour palette, rounded corners throughout the space and a number of structures reminiscent of dens and building blocks – a so-called “nod to kids’ construction”.

“It’s not an exhibition necessarily aimed at children, though we think children will get a lot out of it because it shows their experience writ large, but it feels important that it is an environment that takes them into account,” says Sargent.

The 3D design for the show was created by Andres Ros Soto, and the 2D by HATO. In his development of the space, Ros Soto says care was taken not to go “too far” with the child-like designs.

“I loved the idea of making everything a bit oversized, so that you’d have a child-like perspective,” he says, “but not so much that you felt you’d been transported to an oversized kindergarten.”

Credit: Play Well, Wellcome Collection

Ultimately, Ros Soto’s vision was to create a space accessible to every kind of visitor. “You have to serve two kinds of visitors – the people in the know, who already have an idea of the subject, and then the children too.

“We wanted to make it as democratic as possible, so that it didn’t alienate children nor make adults feel out of place.”

For this reason, Ros Soto’s design can be seen as both modern and retro, in order to evoke memories of childhood from adults looking back and the children of today. The quilted fabric for the seating produced by Dutch company Bible, for instance, “reminds the gallery assistants of their childhood bedrooms,” he says.

Credit: Play Well, Wellcome Collection

The interactivity of the show is likely to appeal to all ages and abilities. Included in the exhibits are a series of computers games inspired by conversations with “digital natives” – young people who have only ever known a world connected by technology.

“We spoke to [the young people] about why gaming was important to them and the associated risks. And then we got a games designer to create four very simple games that express this” says Sargent, who adds that the result is a complex and nuanced look into the conversation, much more than just staying up late or not doing homework in order to play.

Beyond this, Ros Soto believes Adam James’ larping commission will take centre stage. Positioned so that everyone can view is from almost anywhere in the gallery, it will encourage visitors of all ages to get involved and play with each other.

Sargent adds: “I really love the idea that the space is a really serious consideration of something that comes directly from childhood.”


Play Well runs at the Wellcome Collection from 24 October to 8 March. Admission is free.

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