Wellcome Collection

In Exhibitions, Museums on November 26, 2011 at 10:00 am

The Wellcome Collection is the foremost medical museum in Britain, nay, the WORLD as far as I’m concerned, and so it has a lot to live up to.


The Wellcome is based near Euston/ Bloomsbury, in a very impressive, traditional-looking museum building. It’s not so traditional inside, however; the man hanging from the ceiling in the lobby tends to give that away, and the exhibitions further confirm it. I shall state now that there aren’t many pictures in this post, as the Wellcome doesn’t allow photography. A lot of its exhibitions are based on original artworks, which I suspect may be the reason for this. It’s still very much a museum though, as opposed to a gallery – so let’s have a bit of my favourite; museum history! (I’ll keep it short. Promise.)

Henry Wellcome was a fine man who lived in the golden age of collecting, and collect he did. He used some of the spoils from his immensly successful pharmaceutical company to buy up all manner of tenuously and not-so-tenuously related objects – the link they all have in common is medicine, health, illness, wellness, and the general human condition. The pharmaceutical company became the Wellcome Trust, which in turn now funds squillions of medical trials, the Wellcome Collection, the Wellcome Library, and a number of related medical humanities. It’s basically Captain Awesome.

And now, I shall walk you around the Collection, the trust’s Museum arm. Upstairs first: you will find two galleries on the first floor. Medicine Man is the permanent exhibition of a tiny selection of Henry Wellcome’s curios – objects ranging from pharmacy bottles to torture chairs, via chastity belts and mummies, all on display in the style of a curiosity cabinet. It’s a refreshing take on a really bizarre (and enormous) collection of stuff, and paints a great picture of what Henry Wellcome loved to do (although there’s not a huge amount of biographical detail about the man himself – his collection is the star). The second permanent gallery is Medicine Now – a collection of objects, interactives and modern art that paint a selective picture of the state of the world today. This gallery focuses on three modern medical issues – Malaria, Obesity, and the Human Genome. My favourite item in this gallery is a Von Hagens plastination – a wafer-thin slice of a real human being, preserved in resin. It’s amazing to see the human body broken down in that way.

Downstairs, you will find the ever-changing temporary exhibition space, which is what the Wellcome is known for. The exhibitions change 3-4 times a year, I believe, and always include a diverse range of events to supplement the objects on display. The current exhibition, Magic, looks at Mexican votive retablos, painted and offered in thanks to patron saints for saving/curing/guarding the sick and the wounded. The first word that comes to mind isn’t medicine, surely, but you see where they’re coming from. It’s a very 2d, art gallery-esque exhibition (even by the Wellcome’s standards), but it’s really interesting still. And I HATE art galleries. There’s also a smaller exhibition at the moment, Charms, one artist’s work on the subject of talismans is complemented by an collection of good luck charms from the ages, some of which belonged to some very famous people. My one complaint? This subject could have done with a full-size exhibition all of its own – I was instantly intrigued and wished it was bigger.

The Wellcome is a personal favourite. Quite apart from their amazing café and bookshop, I have a penchant for the history of medicine, arguably begun earlier this year after visiting the Wellcome for the first time. It’s a fantastic museum/gallery hybrid that brings to life one of the best and most diverse medical collections in the world; it doesn’t shy away from controversial and unusual subjects. Recent temporary exhibitions have included High Society (drugs) and Dirt (…dirt), and it was the Wellcome that staged the first ever live screening of a heart bypass with their first ever exhibition in their shiny new building. I cannot recommend it enough, and I’m sure there will be future posts about the changing temporary exhibitions. Lucky you!

My one gripe about the Wellcome –and it is such a tiny thing, I almost hesitate to say it – is that while downstairs is designed to keep you coming back, the upstairs doesn’t bear repeat visits very well. I have been three or four times to the Wellcome, and each time Medicine Man and Medicine Now are a little bit less awesome. I know that the whole point of having a permanent gallery is to keep one exhibition static, but they are both very small. You can easily take in the whole of both exhibitions in an hour, and by whole I mean have seen every object and played on every interactive. Such small spaces don’t suit such a level of permanency, I don’t think – I’d like to see that change in the future.

All that said, I love the Wellcome, and I revisit it whenever I’m in the area – and I ALWAYS go upstairs. If for no other reason than to have a go at the postcard drawing thingy they have in Medicine Now. Lookit:

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  2. […] anyone who has read my previous reviews of Wellcome Collection exhibitions knows, I’m a big fan. I love Henry Wellcome. I love his collection. I love the history of […]

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