I suspect most Londoners discover the Wellcome Collection by accident. Occupying a handsome white building planted foursquare on a corner of Euston Road, its airy ground-floor cafe is the perfect place for a midday coffee meeting or solo work-stop. Unless people have a curious wander, little will they know that lurking one floor up is the perfect, morbid embodiment of the darkest shadow-sides of the Victorian mind.
The permanent collection of medical artefacts is a ripe mix of Angela Carter, Freud and David Cronenberg, with dim red lighting hitting shining rows of gigantic curved forceps, rusty ancient prosthetic limbs, phrenology skulls, big-boobed fertility goddess effigies, historical sex aids, apothecary jars, smutty pictures carved on ivory, intricate medicine-themed oil paintings and Napoleon’s manky toothbrush.
My two favourite items are a Chinese doctor’s surgery sign strung with fronds of extracted human teeth, and, from Scotland in the early 1880s, an entire decapitated ram’s head complete with long curly horns, with a silver snuff box mounted atop the cranium. These fetishised objects are at once kinky and esoteric. Each acquisition has a story.
For an artist, it’s a treasure trove of macabre inspiration, and for any social or cultural historian it’s very telling of the biases and perspectives of the age. The custodians at the Wellcome Collection are well aware of this, stating: “We need to confront the uncomfortable history of our collections. We have a responsibility to be honest and transparent about the past injustices in which our collections are rooted.”
Henry Wellcome himself was an American arriviste: the self-made founder of a pharmaceutical company, knighted in Britain, who established the Wellcome Trust to fund health research in his will.
The trust is one of Britain’s major funders of lifesaving long-term work, including vaccine research. Wellcome was an ambitious businessman who was obsessed with health and healing, yet he also had an excellent eye for art and artefacts, and he was very much a model of his era. Classic Victorian taxonomania, American avarice, colonial greed and appropriation, Enlightenment polymathy, nouveau riche grabbiness, a historical western superiority complex that was nonetheless susceptible to the exotic, the oriental, the alluringly foreign … it’s all there, on show, and, as an early figurehead for big pharma, Wellcome had the wallet to buy it all.
Only a fraction of the Wellcome Collection’s permanent holdings are on display. I’ve visited the store rooms and seen some of the items that aren’t available to the public: beautiful paintings from colonised territories the world over, countless public service announcement leaflets and posters, leather medics’ bags containing vials of long-evaporated tonics and tinctures, and much else.
In recent years, the Wellcome Collection has opened up and given itself a huge refresh, with truly fantastic contemporary exhibitions, including extensive commissions from a diverse range of artists in various disciplines. As such, it has moved far away from its founder’s original carnival of morbid curiosity, international smut and imperial knick-knacks.
Full disclosure: I presented its Hello Happiness audio series, all about mental and physical health, last year, and as a guest editor I’ve commissioned poets, artists and nonfiction writers to trawl through the archives and create pieces inspired by them. Every visit provides so much food for thought and creation.
When I dropped in to make notes for this piece, four hours disappeared in a blink as I wandered up through all the floors, discovering contemporary art discreetly placed in natural light (look out for longtime mental institution patient Gwyneth Rowlands’s painted hunks of flint tucked in a corner in the reading room) and stumbling across people reading and working, curled up on the velvet sofas and cushions.
The notion of health extends to everything and everyone, and it’s indivisible from issues of society, power and privilege. A current exhibition at Wellcome, Rooted Beings, looks at plants and the natural world and features gorgeous textile works by Gözde İlkin, in which human and plant figures morph and combine in movements of celebration, memorial and mourning, as well as wonderful, draped, Fraggle Rock-like giant recreations of algae and pond life by Ingela Ihrman, rendered in delicate green silks and heavy foam.
The other current exhibition, In the Air, includes beautifully delicate sketches by Dryden Goodwin of anti-pollution activists drawing in lungfuls of breath. We saw, during the pandemic, that survival, treatment and susceptibility rates – as well as our ability to weather the lockdowns with equanimity – were affected by wealth, race, location, access to healthcare, social networks, age and much else.
The institution’s entire vision is about health but, in these dark times, that means so much: mental illness, physical diseases and viruses, birth and ageing, our attitudes to death, but also the healthiness of our cities and the way we treat the planet. It’s incredibly moving to visit exhibitions that link up the personal and the political, the institutional and the natural, the scientific and the artistic.
Other strange collections
Booth Museum of Natural History, Sussex
Founded in 1874 by Edward Thomas Booth, this is one of the largest collections of Victorian taxidermy in the world. Specialising in birds, butterflies and fossils, the museum is now valuable to conservationists for its record of flora and fauna and to curious visitors.
Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Cornwall
One of the largest collections in the world of occult and magic objects, including wands, talismans and black mirrors. Though its origins go back to the 50s, the current museum in Boscastle is run by art director Simon Costin, who is also director of the Museum of British Folklore.
Barn Museum and Theatre, Sussex
Recently opened by Oscar-winning costume designer John Bright, the Barn Museum houses a rare collection of antique toys, dolls and puppets. Bright has been collecting puppets since he was 15.