Superhuman at the Wellcome Collection provides - as I've come to expect from this eclectic museum - a surprising array of objects, including false noses made of silver, Vivienne Westwood high heels, Marvel comic books, and antique dildos. With such a range of items, it's not surprising that this exhibition's theme is extremely broad: it is a historical overview of the ways in which humans have enhanced, improved, or adapted our bodies. Occasionally, however, the exhibition suffers from a lack of focus as it jumps from sports to superheroes in this vast survey of human technology, but it is an ambitious project which engages with the major ethical issues of science and the body.

The subcategories by which Superhuman is organised could each easily make for entire exhibitions alone - 'Man and Machine', 'Superheroes', and 'The Future of Humanity' being a few examples of this baffling breadth of subject matter. The defining characteristic of being human, Superhuman seems to argue, is our drive for improvement, for adaptation, and our vast capacity for using technology. Transhumanism proponent Anders Sandberg (research fellow at the University of Oxford and one of the exhibition’s six TV-screened talking heads) claims that human technology is inseparable from biology, and that in fact "we can become more human by using technology". It seems, then, that what Superhuman is tackling is much bigger and more unwieldy - the nature of humanity itself.

Supporting this view of using technology as innately human is a tiny statue of Icarus from the third century CE, which, projected life-sized onto the first wall, opens the exhibition and reminds us that the pursual of enhancement is deeply entrenched in our cultural mythology. The statue, however, is used here to signify the perils of technology and the importance of using new developments carefully, lest humanity melt the wax of its gadgets in the sun.

The moral dangers of technology and the body are also highlighted by several slightly more sinister items on display. In particular, the issue of performance-enhancing drugs is discussed, making this exhibition more pertinent in the light of the London 2012 Olympics - one example here is a photo of Tom Hicks' 1904 Olympic marathon in which he collapsed from strychnine, a drug which was not banned at the time. This theme is more relevant to the Paralympics in particular - and there is a noticeable emphasis on prosthetics in sport. Nike's famous 'waffle-sole' trainers, as well as a pair of blade legs, join a display of more bizarre items such as the 'Whizzinator' - a false penis designed to get around drug tests by dispensing fake urine.

In a section on prosthetics, the ethics of restoring human bodies to a 'normal' state is discussed with reference to the thousands of children born with malformed limbs due to thalidomide. The UK government's response to the drug disaster was to provide artificial limbs - but these were often rejected both because they were heavy and clumsy, and because the users grew to resent the idea of normalising their bodies' appearance at the expense of function. Matthew Barney's Cremaster film series also engages with the idea of normalising prosthetics as troubling - actress Aimee Mullins reverses this view and uses fanciful and surreal artificial legs (her clear plastic 'Man-of-War' legs are on display), and has said that she views the 'space' of her missing fibulae as an opportunity to create new identities.

Artworks on display that engage with issues of body extension and enhancement complement the exhibition and shed a provoking critical light on the nature of technology. Rebecca Horn's Scratching both walls at once is a piece in which the artist dons spidery finger-extending gloves, allowing her to extend the limits of her own body. Other works are more critical of enhancements, such as Regina José Galindo’s 2005 video performance: naked and being marked up by a cosmetic surgeon, she comments on Brazil's rampant obsession with bodily perfectionism. Most disturbing was Revital Cohen's The Immortal, an ensemble of life-support machines exchanging fluids - yet missing the crucial spark of human life - that suggests actual human bodies are becoming less important in the wake of machinery and gadgetry.

The meandering organisation of Superhuman's objects does leave something to be desired - perhaps a firmer grip on narrative or chronology - and the broad themes mean that visitors will only get tantalising tastes of the bigger issues at stake. The interplay, however, between artefact and artwork in the exhibition is delicately handled, and the exhibition is full of fascinating objects: it is worth a visit on that account.

Superhuman, at Wellcome CollectionKate Mason reviews Superhuman at the Wellcome Collection.3