By IAN SANSOM.
CRUSHED AND SWALLOWED up into the Virgin Trains Pendolino service at Birmingham International, I find myself regurgitated into Euston Station, spilling out hot and sticky onto the concourse and then slipping and sliding across a fuming Euston Road into the cool marble embrace of the Wellcome Collection, which advertises itself as ‘a free visitor destination for the incurably curious’. I am by no means incurably curious — indeed, most of the time, I couldn’t care less — but on this hot English summer’s afternoon I am at least vaguely interested, as well as more than a little irritable, tired and weary. Could the Wellcome Collection act as a salve? Might it offer me respite from this long sickness, my life?
Neither fish nor flesh nor fowl, the Wellcome Collection hosts exhibitions and public events, and has a famous library, and also a nice retro-style cafe, and an excellent gift shop stocking a wide range of novelty gift-type items. When I arrive an elderly man with an RAF accent is haranguing the staff at the cafe because he has been handed what he claims is an unwashed glass. ‘What would Henry Wellcome say about that, eh?’ he demands. Henry Wellcome probably wouldn’t say anything about it: he’d just stick it in a display case with a cryptic catalogue note, ‘Dirty glass (London, c.2013)’, and then he’d go looking for more.
Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936) was a luxuriantly moustached entrepreneur, archaeologist, philanthropist, and a maniac collector of weird objects. Born into a strict Seventh Day Adventist family in the American Midwest, he started selling his own home-made invisible ink when he was sixteen. He then trained as a pharmacist, started travelling, and in London in 1880 he co-founded the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co. From selling compressed tablets – which Wellcome called ‘tabloids’, a word which caught on – he became rich and started collecting.
The objects he collected were not fine art, antiques or ceramics, the more frivolous and high-end works of human creativity, but primitive and practical objects which he believed demonstrated what he called ‘the actuality of every notable step in the evolution and progress from the first germ of life to the fully developed man of today’. Viewed together he hoped that these objects might somehow yield their universal meanings and characteristics and reveal the fundamental patterns of human existence.
THUS, SLOWLY AT first, but then with increasing determination and enthusiasm, and employing a team of professional collectors, Wellcome started amassing charms and amulets from around the world, and ceramic pharmacy jars, and fakir’s sandals, and votive penises, and toothbrushes, and Inuit snow goggles, and seventeenth-century ivory anatomical figures of pregnant females, and scraps of human tattoos, and more artificial limbs than you can shake a stick at.
His extraordinary collection was first exhibited at the International Congress of Medicine in London in 1913, with the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum opening in its permanent premises on Wigmore Street a year later, boasting a Hall of Primitive Medicine, a Hall of Statuary, a Picture Gallery, a Corridor of Photography, and reconstructions of apothecary’s shops and pharmacies. The collection eventually grew so large it became unmanageable and was dispersed, large parts of it now being housed in the basement of an old National Savings Bank in Hammersmith, but bits and pieces are still on display to the public at the Euston Road buildings, as a kind of afterthought to the massive cafe and gift shop.
So, you leave the cafe and its filthy glasses and go upstairs into the collection, where you are confronted first by a jumble of science- and medicine-related contemporary artworks and displays that make up the ‘Medicine Now’ permanent exhibition, the most arresting item being John Isaacs’s ‘I can not help the way I feel’ (2003), a sculptural eruption of human-like plastic, which looks like a 3D Francis Bacon: so lifelike and so strange, it’s enough to give you body dysmorphia.
Turning right, you then enter the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibition, which houses the selection from Wellcome’s original collection in a large room which feels rather like the lobby of a boutique hotel: there’s a lot of blonde wood shelving and mood lighting. All you’d need would be the addition of a tango-bhangra-qwali ambient remix being played softly in the background and you could be in the Hôtel Costes, or some other hip Euro hang-out — if it weren’t for all the medical instruments, sex aids, diagnostic dolls and anatomical figures on display. Although, then again …
So what is one supposed to make of all this stuff, this embodiment of existence? The usefulness of the Wellcome Collection as science has been in dispute since the Museum was first opened: it has sometimes been dismissed as nothing more than a harmless act of minor pleasure, and sometimes as an act of hideous miscreation, as far from the principles of true scientific method as it is possible for a very rich man to go — Wellcome as a kind of Dr Frankenstein. The collection does certainly speak more of luxury and curiosity than of diligent, careful research, but therein lies its appeal.
There are doubtless comparisons to be made between Wellcome and Hans Soane, and perhaps with Aby Warburg and William Randolph Hearst, other businessmen collectors of whom we are now the beneficiaries, but there is something distinctively odd and unsettling about the Wellcome collection, something that makes it quite unique. For all its quirky aesthetic appeal, this is a collection that makes one think not upon beauty but upon truth, and not upon the external but upon interior realms. Above all, it makes one think of death. The Wellcome Collection is not a museum: it is a vast memento mori.
Ian Sansom is the author of several books, including The Bad Book Affair (UK) (US) and other titles in the Mobile Library Mystery series and Paper: An Elegy (UK) (US), which was launched in October 2012 at The Paper Museum. His latest series is ‘County Guides’, published by Fourth Estate. The first volume in the series is The Norfolk Mystery (UK) (US). He teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Warwick, writes frequently for The Guardian and the London Review of Books, and is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review.