Tag Archives: Wellcome Collection

Wellcome to London: how Henry Wellcome ‘hoovered up the world’ and left it on the Euston Road

Wisconsin, 1858. A five-year-old boy is playing near his frontier home when a strange stone catches his eye. He takes it to his father, who examines the flint carefully before deciding that it was a prehistoric tool made thousands of years before to cut meat. It probably meant as much to its creator as the railway did to modern humans. ‘That excited my imagination and never was forgotten,’ wrote Henry Wellcome years later, after he had grown up, moved to London and accumulated one of the largest collections of scientific paraphernalia that has ever been gathered by a single individual.

Henry Wellcome

Wellcome established his pharmaceutical company, Wellcome-Burroughs, in 1880, making a mint selling pills to an English public that had previously taken medicine in the form of powder or syrup. This fortune sits in the Wellcome Trust, which was established 76 years ago and is now worth £14 billion, making it one of the world’s largest charitable foundations. Next door to the Wellcome Trust HQ on Euston Road, a short walk from St Pancras, sits the Wellcome Collection, a museum that houses some of the million or so objects collected by Wellcome in his lifetime. Here is Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush, ancient sex aids, Chinese torture chairs lined with blades, boxes of false eyes, human skeletons and paintings by Van Gogh. It is one of the most extraordinary collections in the world, a throwback to a time when wealthy individuals would hoover up the weird and wonderful of the world for their personal collections, but executed on a scale few could compete with.

Ken Arnold is the Wellcome’s Head of Public Programmes. ‘This is the last great non-connoisseurs collection,’ he says. ‘Our usual concept of a collector is somebody who carefully decides whether something is authentic and then forks out a huge amount of money for it. Wellcome had an “other-end-of-the-telescope” approach. He saw everything through medical-tinted spectacles and wanted to own anything that would illuminate that fascination.’

Wellcome collected everything: paintings, engravings, photographs, models, sculptures, manuscripts, books, periodicals, pamphlets, letters, prescriptions, diplomas, medical instruments, archaeological finds, skeletons, skin, hospital equipment, advertisements, drugs, remedies, food, plants, microscope slides, charms, amulets, ceremonial paraphernalia, costumes, medals, coins and furniture. He bought entire shops, contents, fixtures and fittings, acquiring enough to recreate an entire street. He bought others collections, picked up human skulls from African battlefields and returned from one typical trip abroad with 44 packing cases of material. If something wasn’t available, he had an artist make a reproduction. Teams of buyers were finding him items right up until his death in 1936. His reach was broad and their brief was wide.

‘Wellcome had deep pockets and no bureaucrats telling him what he could bring home so he had none of our moral, financial or logistical concerns,’ says Arnold. ‘He hoovered up the world, and left us with this extraordinarily unwieldy and undisciplined collection.’ Although Wellcome amassed an immense collection, he was frugal with his money. ‘He was very wealthy, but he would send employees to auctions dressed down so they didn’t look too rich, and would set up fake companies so people wouldn’t know it was his money,’ says Ross MacFarlane, research officer at the Wellcome Library.

A chippy self-made American, Wellcome could never become part of the British establishment – although he was awarded both a knighthood and the French Legion d’honneur – and a desire to be taken seriously may have prompted his determination to create a museum of ‘the art and science and healing’. This opened in 1913 in South Kensington, before it moved to Wigmore Street and closing in 1932. When Wellcome died, the collection was put into storage or dispersed.

‘The British Museum has 40,000 objects, the Science Museum has more than 100,000, the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford has 30,000 items and there are bits in almost every museum in the UK,’ says Arnold. The Wellcome Trust has since taken a similarly philanthropic approach, funding wings in numerous UK museums, galleries and academic institutions.

In 2007, the Wellcome Collection opened. It is a modern, classy space, with a cafe and bookshop, as well as a gallery that hosts thought-provoking exhibitions that use art and science to explore topics such as Skin, Sleep and Brains. Their next exhibition, Death, promises to be particularly fascinating and challenging.

The Wellcome dares to be different: while most museums take an unfamiliar topic and wring all the knowledge out of it like a damp dishcloth, the Wellcome looks at something familiar and turns it inside out, using contemporary art and scientific research to make visitors question what they think they already implicitly understand. Their ability to do this can be traced back to Henry Wellcome himself.

‘We feel free to interpret the material Wellcome collected,’ says MacFarlane. ‘Because although we know when something was bought and what it cost, we don’t always know how it got to the auction.’ Arnold expands on this: ‘He didn’t talk about his philosophy. There’s enough to get an idea of why he was collecting, but there’s not so much that we feel we have to conform to his beliefs. He once said ‘Never tell anybody what you are planning to do until you have done it.’ That sounds like a good idea to me…’

So the Wellcome eschews blockbuster shows – which Arnold describes as ‘a depressingly greedy way to conduct exhibitions’ – and takes pride in imaginative live events. ‘We never try to be definitive,’ says Arnold. ‘There’s always more to discover. And we don’t want to be po-faced. Science is either deadly serious or fun with pink fluffy letters – and between these two unpalatable positions is a yawning chasm that can be filled with smart and sophisticated entertainment.’

Of course, the Wellcome is helped by having a lot of money in its coffers. ‘We are much more privileged that most other organisations. We are wealthy and we don’t have to satisfy civil servants, corporate sponsors or shareholders. But that attitude comes from the Wellcome Trust itself: science is a risk-taking business and there is a sense we are allowed to be experimental.’

MacFarlane finishes that thought, ‘When we take the directors an idea, they’ll often want to give it a go, and that’s a bit like how Wellcome collected. It’s a great position to be in.’

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Admission free. The Wellcome’s next exhibition is Death, from November 15. 

This Charming Man: Edward Lovett at the Wellcome Collection

I have a small piece in the Independent about the fascinating  Edward Lovett, whose collection of lucky charms, collated around 100 years ago, has just gone on display at the Wellcome Collection.

Lovett, who lived in Croydon, was a banker and self-taught folklorist who was interested in those items that everyday Londoners kept about their person in aid of good fortune or to ward off bad luck. He would travel to the East End and docks to purchase samples of these lucky charms, which could be anything from a dead mole in a bag to a copy of the Lord’s Prayer written in careful handwriting in a spiral on a tiny scrap of paper dated 1872.

Many of the owners would claim not be superstitious, but then explain in hushed tones how a certain coin or nut or shoe had saved them from disaster; numerous items were from soldiers who had taken them to the Western Front in the First World War.

It is an extraordinary and humble collection, but one that grew so vast that Lovett’s wife eventually left him in despair in 1925. At around this time he wrote a marvellous book – Magic In Modern Love – in which he chronicled some of the items from his collection, but in a delightfully haphazard way, rarely bothering to say exactly where he bought them or when or from whom.

Felicity Powell, the artist who is curating the exhibition for the Wellcome, says, ‘He was not the most diligent of reporters. The labelling is often non-existent, which gives the items real mystery. Sometimes you can’t even be sure what they were for so you have this open space in which to speculate.’

Because Lovett was mainly collecting from the docks around east London, the collection gives a real perspective on London as a trading city that used the river to connect with the wider world. ‘There are objects from all over the world,’ says Powell, ‘There’s even an Inuit paddle.  It all came through London and into the hands of dockers and hawkers. We don’t know if these originally belonged to immigrants or natives. We don’t even know if he was collecting authentic objects. Did the people selling them see him coming?’

Lovett died in 1933 and much of his curious collection was absorbed by the Wellcome and the Pitt-Rivers Museum. It is rarely seen by the public. The exhibition at the Wellcome Collection runs until February 26, 2012.

Magic mushrooms in Georgian London

I have always considered Green Park to be the dullest of all central London parks. Look. There’s really nothing there. It’s just a very big lawn.

But twas not always this way. High Society, the Wellcome Collection’s superb new exhibition on drugs in culture – which I recently reviewed in New Statesman – includes a great story from 1799 concerning a doctor, Everard Brande, who was called to the London house of a family suffering from some form of poisoning.

Concerned for his sick family, the father had gone out to seek help but was soon found in a confused state, unable to remember where he was going or why. He was rescued by neighbours and eventually the doctor pieced the story together.

The family had been out gathering mushrooms in Green Park, which they had cooked into a broth, and this had upon the parents and four children an extraordinary effect. All were giddy – with high pulse rates and intense breathing – and all were seeing things. While the adults seemed struck by a morbid fear of death, eight-year-old Edward ‘was attacked by fits of immoderate laughter’ and his staring pupils were massively dilated.

After treatment from Dr Brande, the family recovered (aka came down). I’ll never see Green Park in quite the same way again. I’m sure they didn’t. 

For more, see Michael Jay‘s excellent accompanying book.

Book of the dead dull: against blockbuster exhibitions

A new British Museum exhibition opens this week and it’s already a guaranteed success. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

I went to the press view of the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and afterwards felt much the same as I do after every British Museum exhibition: overwhelmed and underimpressed. But I knew that all the big reviewers would give it a knee-jerk five stars – and sure, enough, before I’d even got home, the first suitably awestruck review was in. Meh.

So why was I so bored, and am I on my own with this? Well, the exhibits are undoubtedly important and fascinating – papyrus and artefacts taken from Egyptian tombs, many dating back more than 3,000 years, which together tell the story of the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. But, gawd, ain’t there a lot of it? And why does the exhibition space look so bloody boring?

 

The British Museum has an incredible talent at taking something potentially fascinating and kicking all the life out of it through stuffy, unimaginative presentation and a conviction that more is better – and getting away with it every time. 

At Book Of The Dead we get acres – and I really mean acres – of stuffy captions and endless cases containing aged papyrus covered in hieroglyphs, with only the odd gaudy mummy case by way of variation. After seeing the first room, I felt I’d seen it all and would have had a more enjoyable experience sitting down with a cup of a tea and reading a good book on the subject. But I still had another dozen rooms to trudge round. Exhibitions are meant to bring a topic to life, but this was deadening. And I was lucky enough to be there when it was relatively empty – for the average punter, it must be chaos.

I’m not sure I’m entirely out on my own here – on my way into the exhibition I bumped into a friend coming out, and he said much the same thing, as did Time Out Art on Twitter. But the British Museum’s methods clearly convince most of the reviewers and they certainly draw the crowds; these are, after all, two of the constituents museums most need to impress. 

As a lover of museums, though, I cannot help feel that the BM is doing the art of exhibitions a disservice. There is none of the thoughtful wit of the Imperial War Museum, or the layered smarts of the Wellcome Collection, or the sheer intellectual depth of the British Library, all three of whom have new exhibitions opening next week that will not get anything like the attention of the BM.

The British Museum make museum-going into something worthy rather than fun. My fear is that thousands of people will push through heaving crowds to see this exhibition drawn by fawning publicity and out of a sense of duty, before emerging battered and bored, vowing to never visit another museum until the next blockbuster rolls into town. That really would be a shame.

Skin at the Wellcome Collection

My review of the Wellcome Collection‘s new exhibition Skin is in the New Statesman this week. Read it here.

Cunningly, I snuck the key phrase into the very opening paragraph:

‘Generally, museums put on exhibitions so that people can learn about things they don’t already know. The Wellcome Collection does almost the reverse: it prefers to start with something that is familiar – in this case, skin – and make it unfamiliar.’

Skin is another very good exhibition from the Wellcome, who stand almost unique among British galleries and museums as a body that is so rich they have no requirement to go cap-in-hand to the public purse or to private sponsors, and consequently have no need or desire to dumb down or exhibit tedious ‘blockbusters’ (I’m looking at you, British Museum) in a bid to pull a cash-and-existence-justifying audience through the door.

Few establishments are so fortunate and few curators would know what to do with themselves if given this sort of creative and intellectual freedom. 

Arts funding is going to take a proper kicking over the next few years. The Wellcome Collection will provide rare shelter from the storm, and one with free wi-fi, a bookshop and Peyton & Byrne cakes. What more can you ask for?