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Sink your Teeth into Wellcome Collection's new exhibition

15 May 2018



From vampires and tooth fairies to barber-surgeons and professional dentists, Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition is the first to trace the evolution of our relationship with our teeth and the pursuit of a pain-free mouth.

‘Teeth’ features over 150 objects including paintings and caricatures, ancient protective amulets, toothpaste advertisements and a range of chairs, drills and training tools, and examines the tensions surrounding tooth-care, whether for health, comfort or confidence. It draws on the rich collections assembled by Henry Wellcome, alongside loans from key Northern European collections including the substantial holdings of the British Dental Association in London.

Exploring the origins of dentistry, and the emergence of the smile, the exhibition showcases Pierre Fauchard’s Le Chirugien-Dentiste (the Surgeon-Dentist), 1728, the first scientific treatise on teeth. It is displayed alongside examples of early dental techniques, tooth-pulling tools and dentures made from hippopotamus ivory. In a 1799 etching, Francisco Goya captures a woman stealing teeth from a hanged man –human teeth could be sold on for use in “sorcerers’” recipes or to the denture and transplant trade.

The exhibition considers tooth-care for both rich and poor. It includes the hygiene set used by Queen Victoria’s dentist, as well as a rare picture of her smiling, dentures belonging to King William IV and Napoleon’s toothbrush. Paintings depict the barber-surgeons and blacksmiths who performed extractions for the less privileged, with caricatures by Thomas Rowlandson contrasting the suffering of the poor with the ostentatious smiles of the wealthy as they display new, gleaming dentures.

Emerging technologies in the 19th and 20th centuries led to a more industrialised approach to tooth care. The exhibition charts the changing availability and affordability of consumer products such as toothpastes and brushes, as well as the evolution of dental drills, the use of x-rays and the advent of anaesthetic. Giant teeth and oversized teaching tools reveal techniques used for training dentists, who practised on large models before tackling the intricacy of a human mouth.

‘Teeth’ also explores the idea of oral hygiene as a right and a responsibility. Following World Wars I and II and the birth of the NHS in 1948, poster campaigns, films and animations outlined how responsible adults should look after their own, and their children’s teeth.

A selection of letters to and from the Tooth Fairy reveal the very particular relationship children have with the gaining and losing of teeth, and how parents, dentists and new technologies can help combat dental anxiety. The public can also submit their own Tooth Fairy letters as part of a digital project.

As the only visible part of the human skeleton, teeth are intrinsically linked to identity, both individual and cultural. An ancient Mayan tooth embellished with jade and a set of contemporary grillz reflect a desire for adornment, and a 1959 poem by Spike Milligan gently mocks ‘English Teeth’. From the lengths some will go to for a Hollywood smile, to the providing of vital forensic clues in the aftermath of warfare or natural catastrophe, our teeth say a lot about who we are.

TEETH runs from 17 May to 16 September 2018 and is curated by James Peto and Emily Scott-Dearing. The exhibition is inspired by The Smile Stealers by Richard Barnett, published by Thames & Hudson in association with Wellcome Collection.

For press information and images please contact:

Emily Philippou, Media Manager, Wellcome Collection

T+44 (0)20 7611 8726 | E e.philippou@wellcome.ac.uk | W wellcomecollection.org/press

Notes to Editors

Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library for the incurably curious. Inspired by the medical objects and curiosities collected by Henry Wellcome, it connects science, medicine, life and art. Through its exhibitions, live programming, and digital and publishing activity, it makes thought provoking content which aims to challenge how we think and feel about health.

Wellcome Collection is part of Wellcome, a global charitable foundation that exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. Both politically and financially independent, we support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate.