If your curiosity is incurable you’ve hit the jackpot with the Wellcome Collection. With two permanent collections, Medicine Man and Medicine Now, as well as a fabulous Reading Room and an excellent programme of temporary exhibitions, you can lose hours in this place.
Medicine Man displays some of the collection of Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), an American-British pharmaceutical entrepreneur. He was also an avid traveller and collector, so this space displays a cross section of wonderful objects relating to the body from around the world.
The gallery is beautifully calm. Panelled in dark wood, it’s like entering a spacious 19th century curiosity cabinet. Below softly lit displays there are drawers that reveal more artefacts. Alongside larger cases there are doors in the walls that you can open to seek further information.
A number of these cases are huge, each with a key theme, rich red fabric and objects lined along the outer edges. This leaves quite a large empty spaces in the centre of the cases, but the objects are so eye-catching that these gaps don’t draw your eye. Instead these spaces allow you to gain a 360 degree view of each item.
Mostly the mounting is very simplistic, in a case of votive offerings the different terracotta body parts are laid out to create the illusion of a disarticulated body. The case displaying artificial limbs is slightly different, a branching geometric tree-like support displays a variation of limbs.
In this gallery you’re encouraged to use social media, notably Instagram, to tell people what the objects make you feel, with a #MuseumFeels. The objects that I found most intriguing were a Scottish Snuff box from 1881-2 that was made from the head of a taxidermy ram, which just seems like such a large and bizarre display of opulence. There is also a Chinese doctor’s sign with dangling human teeth, which to modern eyes seems like something from a horror film rather than an advert for a successful doctor. I’m also a huge fan of memento mori, notably a fine set of silver skeleton statues, reminders that time is a short and precious commodity and usually presented in the form of skeletons in a very ‘as I as am now so you shall be’ method that would nowadays be considered by most as dramatically morbid.
The Medicine Now Gallery has a completely different feel. Within a light and bright space it portrays three topics and the related medicine; obesity, genomes, the body and living with medicine. In comparison to ‘Medicine Man’ the space is more interactive, with a forum wall to add thoughts, recent news articles pinned up allowing visitors to add their thoughts – including both hilarious and bizarre contributions. The gallery also contains artwork responses to medicine and the body, my personal favourite is by Julian Walker and presents how faith, dependence and hope are made physical in the form of medicine. He has individually carved 1452 pills to represent parts of the body, so that they look like votive offerings.
The galleries also have self-guided 15 minute trails with different medical themes to lead you around. Created as part of a new project to connect the collection’s objects to areas of scientific research that matter the most to Wellcome. These subtly remind that this is not just a static collection, Wellcome researchers are still working on medical research. For instance Julian Walker’s art work on pills links to the fact that Wellcome has co-funded the development of a computer program that will analyse bacterial DNA from the infection of a patient in order to predict which medicines will work and which will fail.
Then there is the Reading Room, and it may possibly be one of my favourite spaces in London. Filled with additional objects and artwork from the Wellcome collection this space not only acts as a library, but also a space where you can handle archival material. There are gloves and magnifying glasses laid out, which people automatically use. A book on the library and its objects can act as a guide, but you can also wander through and just look closely at items that particularly grab your attention. There’s also an electronic table tablet which allows you to see items in the collection (and willing volunteers) that have been scanned, allowing you to really see under the skin of items. And there are books, comfy chairs and beanbags . . . I mean what’s not to love?
If you’re still not convinced by the wonders of the Wellcome Collection (you should probably seek help because you’re obviously broken) other joyous features of the museum are that it’s free entry, with cloakroom and bag storage, café, restaurant and shop. And its close proximity to Kings Cross St Pancras and Euston, which makes it an ideal stop off if you’re waiting for a train – but you may get utterly mesmerised and miss your connection.
If Medical Museums are your cup of tea have a look at The Hunterian Museum which is also in London. Or for further afield there is the fairly recently and amazingly refurbished Sungeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh.