For 15 years, a large exhibition space in the Wellcome Collection has told the story of the collection’s founder, Henry Wellcome, but it will be closing later this year.
So you have a few months left to either visit for the first time or pay a final visit to remind yourselves how one man managed to collect such a vast array of medically inspired objects from across the world.
Henry Wellcome was born to a modest family in America, co-founded Burroughs Welcome and Co, and built it into a pharmaceutical empire. He spent his riches buying a huge collection of medical and anthropological items, mostly at auctions or through agents he employed to negotiate on his behalf.
He was made a British citizen in 1910 and when he died in 1936, he left his entire fortune to charity, forming the Wellcome Trust, which is today the fourth wealthiest charitable foundation in the world.
His collection was however broken up after his death, although the medical items stayed largely together, and it’s a part of that collection that makes up the Medicine Man exhibition. It’s changed a bit over the years, but the core of the Medicine Man exhibition is still very much the same as it was when the building reopened following refurbishment in 2007
A large wall is filled with that classic symbol of medicine and chemists — the large glass bottle — and a lot of archival documents about the early days of the Wellcome company and Henry himself.
A collection of the one object likely to send a shudder through most people – the tools of the trade in the form of saws and knives and other undescribable metal implements that look like torture instruments but are actually attempting to save lives.
A large wall of paintings, but look at them and they are all medically themed, or in some cases, religion to highlight the end of life that comes to us all.
A much darker end of the room is full of objects that are a bit difficult to see, and as tempting as it was to pull out the phone and switch on the flashlight, they’re kept in the dark for reasons.
The collection is open about where things were done in the past that today would be frowned upon, such as the negotiations over a much-loved painting that it’s clear Wellcome’s agent abused the seller’s need for money to service a debt by a deadline to force an unwilling sale.
Another object, a mummified male body has been removed as no longer suitable for public display. I quite like when objects are removed that they don’t just vanish and the space reused for something else, but that the void remains for a while, telling a story of how something unsuitable was here from a time when it was deemed suitable for show. Now we leave a gap in the display to remind us how attitudes change over time. The collection is anthropological, and recording changing attitudes is itself a record worthy of collecting by a museum. So here is a gap in the display, preserved.
An entire case is given over to a lock of hair, claimed to be from King George III, and tests on the hair found high levels of arsenic in it, possibly used to treat his madness. Assuming the hair is from King George III, and they do accept that it might not be in the acquisition note.
Look in the far corner, and they have a Van Gough portrait, and not just a portrait, but the only etching the artist ever made. The one on display is a facsimile, as the original is probably far too valuable to be here.
Look elsewhere for the clay penises — a votive offering to the gods. Presumably, the priests prefered the clay offerings instead of personal sacrifice.
The Wellcome Collection says that the room will be initially repurposed as a space for sharing new research and displays, and staging activities and experiments.
The gallery closes later this year – an exact date hasn’t been announced yet. But visit it before it closes, as it’s a solidly good museum collection and you might not see it again.
The Wellcome Collection is open six days a week – closed on Mondays — 10am to 6pm, and late to 8pm on Thursdays. It’s on Euston Road, just over the road from Euston station.
This article was published on ianVisits
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The post Last chance to visit the Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man exhibition appeared first on ianVisits.