Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022
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Cutting-edge collection

London's stylish new medical museum breaks down the barriers between art and science

To step from the busy traffic on London's Euston Road through the doors of the Wellcome Collection is to enter a strange realm where art and science

form a happy bond. Rarely--if ever--have these two disciplines been showcased as equals, each supporting the other, to explore a better understanding of what it is to be human. The Wellcome Collection (admission free) opened in June, and it is a most unusual and wonderful addition to London's attractions.

The collection's founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, had a curious mind in both senses of the word. He was born in the American Midwest and got an early introduction to medicine at the age of eight while helping his uncle treat the wounded of the 1862 Sioux Rebellion. He came up with his first invention in his teens -- lemon juice reincarnated as invisible ink. After graduating from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, he embarked on a life-long pursuit to create a "museum of man." The successful business he launched in 1880 went a long way in helping him realize this dream.

First Tabloid Baron
Burroughs Wellcome & Co. rose quickly to become a pharmaceutical giant, in large measure thanks to Wellcome's groundbreaking transformation of medication from powder or liquid to pill form -- trademarked as the "Tabloid." As the company grew, so did his passion for collecting the relics and artifacts of medical discovery and experiment. The staggering treasure trove of objects and texts amassed during Wellcome's extensive worldwide travels form the basis of the $60-million museum, which resides in the very building that originally housed his pharmaceutical empire.

The works on display reflect a contemporary interpretation of how scientific advances influence and cross over into the world of art as much as they reflect Wellcome's wide-ranging interest in the history of medical science. Where else can you find a lock of King George III's hair, works by Leonardo da Vinci, paintings by Andy Warhol and the first printout of the human genome all under one roof?

"The Wellcome Collection enables people to explore the connections between art and medicine in dramatic and challenging ways," explains Clare Matterson, Director of Medicine, Society and History at the Wellcome Trust, which is the second-largest medical research charity that funds research into human and animal health in the world.

Educational Tools -- from Dildos to Chastity Belts
There are three galleries with over 1300 exhibits to explore. The first, entitled "Medicine Man," focuses on Wellcome as prodigious collector, with the man himself (if only in a photo), greeting you at the entryway. One of the central features of this walnut-panelled room is an oversized Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curios, displaying an array of scientific glassware that takes on the appearance of works of art in this context.

Similarly removed from their usual setting, the candy colours and transparent plastic of a heart-and-lung machine make this functional object look like a child's toy. To delve deeper into Wellcome's world, visitors are encouraged to interact with the exhibits by poking through drawers and peeking behind panels.

It is in his personal collection of oddities that the light really begins to shine on the museum's boundary-breaking concept of looking at science and medicine in a cultural setting. Quotidian objects of historical significance including Lord Nelson's razor, Napoleon's toothbrush, Darwin's whale-bone walking stick and Florence Nightingale's moccasins act as springboards for the imagination. Visitors enter another era and consider the many different approaches to wellbeing that history has furnished.

You can also see freakish items displaying Wellcome's unblinking attraction to some of scientific invention's more questionable devices: Aztec sacrificial knives, a Chinese torture chair, a 14th-century Peruvian mummy, Japanese dildos, an iron chastity belt and 19th-century amputation saws.

An audio guide points out how a single object can serve many different interpretations and purposes. For instance, George III's hair was found to contain traces of arsenic, an 18th-century treatment for madness. A sound clip from playwright Alan Bennett describes how displaying the lock could be seen as an act of obsessive star gazing, drawing attention to his first draft of The Madness of King George, where the king suggests the real cause of his illness was celebrity.

Darning DNA and Bending Gender
Further artistic interpretations await in the second gallery called "Medicine Now." For this exhibit, the Wellcome Fund commissioned artists to address contemporary issues of well-being to be juxtaposed with scientific exhibits. John Isaac's I Can't Help the Way I Feel is a 2.5-metre tall sculpture of an obese figure, so enrobed by giant layers of sculpted fat that its head is enveloped. There is also a bookcase with hundreds of diet books and, next to it, chairs that, when sat upon, trigger audio testimonials of real peoples' struggles to control their weight.

This complementary pairing of art and science is also manifested in the exhibit dedicated to genomes. Andrea Duncan's fanciful interpretation of DNA, in which she fashioned 23 pairs of socks to look like a double-helix, sits beside the world's first-ever print-out of the human genome. The 3.4 billion units of DNA code are also presented in book form -- over 100 volumes, each a thousand pages long. Rounding out the exhibit is the robot that sequenced the code, and in one of the collection's many humorous touches, the fleece and droppings of the first genetically engineered animal, Dolly the sheep.

Two interactive exhibits provide a graphic interpretation of the role of biometrics. Each visitor receives a "Bio-ID," showing the ways this data can be collected and used. The other takes an image of a visitor's face to project how different variables would alter their appearance, for example, by showing how the average smoker's face differs from the average non-smoker's, or how you might look as the opposite sex.

A third gallery is dedicated to temporary exhibitions and, judging from the first show which was themed on the heart, the Wellcome Collection will certainly be worth repeat visits in years to come. The exhibit featured a live open-heart surgery simulcast from a London hospital. Visitors could follow along from incision to suture, and ask the surgeons questions. Dissection drawings by Da Vinci, rare Mexican sacred heart imagery and graphic comparisons of actual heart sizes--from a human's to a sperm whale's to a hummingbird's--were also part of the fun. The current temporary exhibit explores the world of dreaming and runs until March 9, 2008.

Research and Revelry
Sir Henry Wellcome is perhaps best known for his medical library, considered to be the most important in Europe. The collection houses 2 million medical books, photos, films and paintings spanning 3000 years. In the Rare Materials Reading Room, some of the most precious items can be viewed on a computer with a touch-screen that allows you to send comments to the library staff and email the images to any curious-minded comrades. While primarily a place of scholarly study, it is also open to the general public in keeping with the collection's philosophy.

The spirit of invention, curiosity and humour that pervades these exhibit halls carries over to the members' club. The idea of the club is to give like-minded individuals from the world of science and art a salon-type forum. For a nominal fee of £45 a year ($100), you can become a member of the Club Room, which can only be described as a celebration of scientific eccentricity. Designed by artists to look like a quirky school science lab with biscuits in laboratory jars, winged light bulbs, snaking bookshelves and a massive, creeping sectional sofa, it is the kind of space in which Sir Henry would have felt right at home.


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