“Welcome to the Wellcome!”: the destination for the incurably curious. The ‘incurably curious’ – that’s the Wellcome Collection’s own tag line, the other part of that first sentence is, I admit, due to me. But I couldn’t resist, and wonder if anyone ever used a version of this in the presence of the man who started it all: Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome.
Born in the United States in 1853, Sir Henry was a pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector who had moved to the United Kingdom in 1880. His main areas of interest were health and medicine, and their history, which is clearly reflected in the collection he built up over the years. Travelling all around the world, Sir Henry gathered a plethora of art and artefacts – so many in fact that by the time he passed away in 1936, he owned more than many museums.
The collection first became available to others in Sir Henry’s lifetime: in 1913, when the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum opened its doors to medical students. This museum exhibited artefacts ranging from medical equipment to statuettes of gods and goddesses related to health, fertility or death, shamanic masks, portraits, and more.
The same range of exhibits can be found in today’s Wellcome Collection. Founded in 2007, it is housed in the original Wellcome Building together with the Wellcome Library. The neo-classical building was built to Sir Henry’s specifications in 1932 on Euston Road in central London. Next door to it are the headquarters of the Wellcome Trust (founded in 1936), today one of the world’s largest charitable foundations supporting research in the medical and health sciences
Inside the Wellcome Building, visitors can explore the permanent and temporary exhibitions on themes related to health and medicine, their history and impacts, their roles in the sciences, arts and society. Past exhibitions have been on the psychology of magic, consciousness, electricity and life, forensics, Indian medicine, and the asylum. The permanent exhibition, “Medicine Man”, displays key items from Sir Henry’s collection. These items in the first-floor gallery cover the basics of life: birth, health, sex, and death.
“Medicine Man” has the feeling of an old-fashioned yet modern “Wunderkammer”, a cabinet of curiosities full of warm wood, cool glass, and clean lines – which are interrupted when one looks through the cabinets to what is behind. The single themes are thus both visually separate, contained in their cabinets, and yet connected by common design and transparency.
When you enter the exhibition space, you are greeted by a large portrait of Henry Wellcome. The apothecary-style cabinet explores Sir Henry’s history, visually exploring the connections to his past as a pharmacist. Tucked away in a drawer, you can even find a replica of his life mask. These drawers with extra information or replicas to touch and look at more closely are spread throughout the gallery. Together with panels hidden behind doors in the same wood as the walls, they invite exploring some of the exhibits in more depths while keeping the clean look and feel.
The majority of the exhibition is comprised of medical equipment, broadly defined and from a variety of time periods, geographic locations and cultures. Next to bone saws and forceps, for example, there are protheses – and shamanic masks. There are shrines, statuettes and amulets. There are walking sticks (Charles Darwin’s walking sticks at that!), first aid kits and anatomical models. All of these are complemented by portraits and paintings, photographs, and a short film.
The film, “The Phantom Museum: Random Forays into Sir Henry Wellcome’s Medical Collection” (Brothers Quay, 2002), explores part of the collection which at the time of filming was housed in the Science Museum’s stores at Blythe House. (The Science Museum is currently moving its stores to new facilities.) It plays with the idea that museum objects come to life at night: “anatomical models spring into a bizarre form of after-life” and “birthing chairs go through their obstetrical motions.”
For those who like to further explore some of the themes, a small library in one corner offers the opportunity to browse a selection of books on (the history of) medicine. For any in-depth explorations, the Wellcome Library itself, with its over 750,000 books as well as an archive and manuscript collections. There is also a reading room just one level up from “Medicine Man”. There, they often host smaller discussion groups or workshops, which are announced during the day, on the website or can be inquired after at the desk.
You can explore “Medicine Man” on you own, with the free audio guide available next to the gallery’s entrance, or join one of the regular free tours. The audio guide offers introductions to Henry Wellcome, exhibition themes, and specific objects. In addition, there are more detailed discussions or critical examinations, for instance on the ethics of displaying human remains. (Human remains are on display; a note outside the gallery alerts visitors to the fact before they enter.)
There is no prescribed route or trail through the exhibition. The layout allows you to wander about in any direction and you enter and exit through the same door. You can either follow the numbers in the audio guide and thus move from cabinet to cabinet. Or you can let some of the larger exhibits – like the Chinese dragon chair, or maybe the protheses? – catch your eyes and attention. The audio guide is set up so that you can then freely type in the numbers next to those items that interest you the most.
And if you’re bringing children to the Wellcome Collection, you can pick up a Young Explorer’s Guide with a Young Explorer’s Kit. These are aimed at 5 to 10-year olds and suggest activities in and around “Medicine Man” and the Library’s reading room. Can you, for example, find a picture of Sir Henry’s boat, or one of his family? And why not wear a big moustache like his while doing so – there’s one in the Kit!
Website: https://wellcomecollection.org (Well worth checking out are the “Stories” exploring connections between science, medicine, life and art. Sometimes they are linked to temporary exhibitions; they can be image galleries, comics, interviews, or serials.) The Wellcome Library has a separate website: https://wellcomelibrary.org
Admission: free. (NB: On busy days, they may manage numbers for the temporary exhibitions with queuing or free, timed tickets.)
Opening hours: The galleries and reading room are closed on Mondays and open 10.00—18.00 Tuesdays to Sundays with longer opening hours (until 21.00) on Thursdays. The café, shop and library are open on Mondays (8.30, 9.00 and 10.00 to 18.00 respectively).
Tours: The free tours of “Medicine Man” typically take half an hour and start every day at 11.30, 14.30, and 15.30. They are announced beforehand, or you can inquire at the desk on the ground floor. You can also book tours for the Wellcome Library.
Location: 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, United Kingdom. The Wellcome Collection is easy to reach by public transport (Euston, Euston Square, and Warren Street are the closest Underground stations), and their website has more information on bus services and train stations.
Accessibility: “Medicine Man” is located on the first floor. Temporary exhibitions are usually on the ground floor and on the first floor, and all spaces have step-free access. The information desk, café and shop as well as the cloakroom (free to use) are on the ground floor. For more information, see https://wellcomecollection.org/access.
What else: Nearby museums and exhibition spaces that can easily be visited in combination with the Wellcome Collection are the British Library and the British Museum, the Grant Museum of Zoology, the UCL Art Museum, the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, the Brunei Gallery SOAS, the London Canal Museum, or the Foundling Museum. (With the exception of the Canal Museum, these are all part of the Museum Mile London, 14 museums located between Euston Road in the Bloomsbury area of London down to the River Thames.)
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Helen Piel is a historian of science currently completing her 3-year PhD project on the biologist John Maynard Smith at the University of Leeds and the British Library, during the last year of which she has also worked as an education volunteer at the London Canal Museum. She received her BA in Arts and Culture, as well as her MSc in Cultures of Arts, Science and Technology, from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands.