September 23, 2011 5:10 pm

The Wellcome at 75

There are more than 100,000 items in the Wellcome Trust’s wonderfully strange collection. On its anniversary, we take a peek at the world’s greatest curiosity cabinet

“I was one of those people who pressed up against the glass case when I went round museums,” says Kayleigh Beard. Now she works beyond the glass, as a conservator in the Science Museum’s store at Blythe House in west London.

Toting her bunch of keys, she is the gatekeeper of the medical history collection, based on more than 100,000 objects amassed in the first half of the last century by Sir Henry Wellcome. “I get to see all of the secrets that people don’t get to see,” she says.

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The Wellcome objects are approached through a succession of grand corridors still clad in their original glazed tiles. Apparently interminable, this labyrinth is what dreams are made of. “The basement normally scares people quite a lot,” Beard remarks. Objects are sorted into rooms by size and theme. “The first thing you notice is their smell,” says Katie Maggs, the museum’s curator of medicine. “It’s really powerful. The oriental room smells of incense; the dentistry room smells more like going to the dentist’s.”

The key to understanding the entire Wellcome collection can be seen on a small carton containing a test tube. Today the text is hard to make out and the sentiments difficult to credit, but the slogan still maintains that the Tabloid brand signifies “Purity, Accuracy and Reliability”. Although the word has fallen into disrepute, in its heyday the brand won the confidence of the public and the medical profession alike. Inside are antacid tablets, one of the products from which Henry Wellcome made his fortune. Wellcome was one of the first modern pharmaceutical entrepreneurs, and one of the last great Victorian collectors. He spent a significant portion of his wealth amassing a museum collection said to number a million objects and a library of half a million items. It was a cabinet of curiosities on an industrial scale.

Wellcome’s death in 1936 brought about the birth of the Wellcome Trust, which inherited his collection along with his company. The trustees found themselves responsible for the world’s greatest attic, their warehouse shelves stacked high with medical, anthropological and miscellaneous jumble. In her 2010 book An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World, historian Frances Larson lists the contents of a single box, including a medicine chest, sundry feeding cups and other chinaware, microscopes, spectacles, a Chinese book, a poison dart and a drum made from human skulls. Its chaos of therapeutics, cultures, nurture, science, exotica and menace is the Wellcome collection in miniature.

The trustees distributed some of this baggage to museums around the world – as well as to the Home Guard and other military units, which received thousands of the weapons accumulated. Now, 75 years later, the Trust has got the measure of the tenth it still owns. And it has learned to love its objects by embracing their infinite curiosity.

The decisive step was taken in the 1970s. While the books and images remained in the library at Wellcome’s neo-classical edifice near Euston Station, the remaining objects were transferred to the Science Museum’s care. Several thousand are displayed there while a selection of others can be seen at the Wellcome Collection, as the Euston Road building is now known; the rest are in storage. Four hundred large items, including operating tables and Roman tombs, are kept at Wroughton in Wiltshire. The vast bulk of the collection is at Blythe House, which began life as the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank in 1903.

In all, the museum’s database lists 114,593 Wellcome entries, many of which cover groups of objects. A number of non-medical items have survived the disposals. “We’re still unpacking them,” says Maggs. She is currently going through objects related to the history of telegraphy.

Inside Blythe House’s windowless vaults, order has finally been imposed on the collection. One room is crammed with ranks of obstetric forceps. There is a chamber devoted entirely to mortars and pestles, the latter shelved separately. Another room is filled with cupboards containing anatomical figures, from ivory miniatures lying on velvet beds to lugubrious wax models of body parts, mostly injured or diseased. On the top shelf of one cupboard lies the model head of a bearded man who seems to have been the victim of an assault or accident; on the shelf below rests a pair of wax hands whose acquired coat of grime adds to the sense that these objects represent real lives.

European executioner’s mask, pre 1700

European executioner’s mask, pre 1700

Across the corridor from the obstetrical instruments is a room in which the shelves are strewn with chains, spikes, barbs and whips. Among them is an executioner’s mask, which turned an inhuman iron face, with furious brow and monstrous crow’s beak, upon those about to die. A scold’s bridle, caging the head and pinning down the tongue, punished women for speaking too freely. Many of the instruments in the collection caused pain unavoidably; but these were intended to inflict pain deliberately. They are the opposite of medicine.

“I like that bit of the corridor,” says Beard. “I refer to them as the torture room and the birthing room. It sums up a lot of the Wellcome collection because it goes from birth to death. Life and death are facing each other: it has a poetry to it.”

She’s right – and you can’t grasp the Wellcome collection unless you can see the poetry in it. But until quite recently, the irrepressible curiosities and juxtapositions that make the collection captivating were regarded as an irrelevance, an embarrassment and a confounded nuisance to the people charged with putting it in order. When Henry Wellcome displayed his collection for the first time, he decreed that the museum should be “strictly professional and scientific in character”. His collection has resisted successfully ever since.

Skeleton alarm clock

Skeleton alarm clock. A 19th-century alarm clock reminds us that time is always running out. By the look of the mechanism, when the alarm rang, the skeleton’s eyes rolled

Henry Solomon Wellcome had put together a personal “museum” of curiosities by the time he arrived in London, in 1880. Born in Wisconsin in 1853, he was raised in a frontier region of Minnesota. As a young man he worked as a travelling salesman for a drug company – with an extra role as a prospector, searching for folk remedies and medicinal plants in Peru and Ecuador. He came to London to set up a pharmaceutical business with another American, Silas Burroughs. Their venture was based on the new technique of compressing medicines into tablets. At first they wanted to trademark “tablet”, but had to accept that such an every-day word was beyond their control. Wellcome coined “tabloid” instead, registering it in 1884.

The Tabloid brand flourished, and by the turn of the century “tabloid” had come to signify “a compressed form of anything from a literary education to household dwellings”, as Mr Justice Byrne observed in a 1903 judgment upholding the trademark. Byrne also noted the efforts the company had put into promoting the brand, sending diaries to “every medical practitioner, to every chemist and to every known nurse in the Empire”. But while the marketing techniques were modern, the ingredients belonged to a wilder and woollier age. “Ferad” tablets contained “arsenic and strychnine, sugar-coated”. “Mixed Glands, No. 2 (Female)” included extracts from the thyroid, ovary, pituitary, mammary and suprarenal glands, plus “cerebral substance”. “Forced March” anticipated the slang expression “marching powder”: it was based on cocaine.

Silver-plated “memento mori” skeletons, Europe, pre 1900

Silver-plated 'memento mori' skeletons, Europe, pre 1900

In 1901 Wellcome married Syrie Barnardo, the daughter of Thomas Barnardo, who founded the children’s charity. Within a decade the marriage had imploded. Syrie, who was more than 20 years younger than Henry, complained that “the greater part of our time has been spent, as he well knows, in places I detested collecting curios”. They courted in Egypt and split up in Ecuador. She later married the playwright W. Somerset Maugham and became the first English female interior decorator.

Wellcome could not collect enough on his own travels to satisfy his desire for objects. “The whole of India should be ransacked,” was how one of his collecting agents summed up his brief. In London, he ordered his men to use false names at auctions, which he would sometimes attend incognito. For Wellcome, collection was nine-tenths of the quest. Getting things was the thing; he was not concerned about sorting them out, or showing them off. Would-be visitors to the museum he opened in central London in 1913 had to apply in writing.

But today he is commemorated with an array of objects that plays unashamedly on the collection’s wonderful strangeness. The Wellcome Collection is billed as a “free destination for the incurably curious”. This was the move that the collection needed to make in order to release its hidden potential. Much in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery at the Science Museum is strange and curious, but there’s a conventional seriousness in the way the close-packed showcases tell their story that Henry Wellcome would have recognised. It is like a history book, whereas the Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man gallery is more like a novel. The Trust has seized on the collection’s power to send people’s imaginations off in all kinds of directions. “I think it’s fantastically incoherent,” says Ken Arnold, its head of public programmes. “I suppose it’s a museum of possibilities.”

. . .

When I set myself the task of suggesting which objects might be included in this anniversary 75, I knew right away that there should be a case of surgical instruments or medicines among them. At the photoshoot I realised exactly why. The surgical instrument case had been in front of the camera for a long time, unfolded and angled this way and that, before we realised that there was yet another compartment containing yet more instruments. That’s what the collection is like, and that’s how I remember it from my time working as an assistant during the preparation of Wellcome’s historical galleries at the Science Museum. The longer you spend with the objects, the more you discover, and the less you imagine anybody could ever get to the end of it. That’s why I’m delighted to hear from Katie Maggs that the curators are still unpacking boxes. And that’s why it is apt for the Wellcome Collection’s Van Gogh etching to be hidden behind a door in the darkest corner of the Medicine Man gallery, overlooked by all but the most inquisitive visitors.

Dried 'merman' chimera made from fish, fowl and monkey, possibly 19th century

Many of the objects remain beyond the curators’ grasp even though they have been catalogued. Huge numbers of items were acquired without any real provenance. “Curious object, use unknown” was the formula baffled curators used between the wars. The “merman”, a chimera made from bits of fish, fowl and monkey, is identified as “possibly Dutch or Japanese, possibly a Javanese ritual figure, possibly 1801-1900”. A paper label classifies it under veterinary medicine. No wonder it has such a mischievous expression on its face.

The collection’s power over the imagination doesn’t come just from its curios, though. It lies in the sheer numbers, the serried ranks that have frustrated generations of curators. Like a natural history collector, Wellcome wanted specimens showing all the minute variations within types, and as he went on, he wanted more and more material from different cultures, which he saw as the raw material for the story of medicine’s progress from magic to science.

The result is a more profoundly human story; the more objects that surround you, the more deeply it sinks in. A walk through Blythe’s corridors is a tourist’s trail through the ramifications of human suffering and humanity’s attempts to relieve it. That is largely a story of failure, which for Ken Arnold fills the collections with a “delicious sadness” – and the opportunity to encounter human lives from the past. Each knife, each saw, each pair of forceps is a relic of the injuries, the illnesses, the births and the deaths of all the people they were used upon. A hundred thousand objects are haunted by countless millions of lives.

Marek Kohn is author of ‘Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles Will Change as the World Heats Up’ (Faber).

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