London Day 3: The Wellcome Collection

The train back from Manchester to London let me off at Euston Station, which just happened to be across the street from one of the destinations at the top of my England travel list: the Wellcome Collection. I unfortunately don’t have any photos of the exhibits inside, as they were forbidden, but hopefully I can recreate the experience for you.

(from guardian.co.uk)

Luckily I have the internet to help me out. The Wellcome Trust was started by Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome, a man of wide travels and eccentric tastes (shown above with an unsurprisingly elaborate moustache). He was especially interested in medical history, and the Wellcome Collection focuses on this fascination through rotating exhibits (there was an excellent one on brains when I was there), but the most fascinating part of the museum is the section on Wellcome himself and the collection of objects he amassed. Wellcome was actually born in Wisconsin, and had an early interest in invention, creating an invisible ink when he was just 16, going on to found a pharmaceutical company which sold medications in England. He became a British citizen in 1910 and was knighted in 1932, although he died of pneumonia a short time later in 1936 at the age of 82.

(from wellcomecollection.org)

The trust set up at the time of his death has had an extraordinary legacy, especially with the Wellcome Collection which realizes in part his dream to have a “Museum of Man” and bills itself as “a free destination for the incurably curious.” In the exhibit Medicine Man at the Wellcome Collection, it’s possible to glimpse into the thousands of objects he collected, each more strange and wonderful than the last. The museum has the only audioguide on which I’ve wanted to listen to every single track, as I walked from a rack of prosthetic legs to a guillotine blade to a trepanned skull, each with its own entrancing story to tell. There were several large glass caes crowded on the floor, and even more objects in drawers and cabinets around the gallery. I imagine I could come back limitless times and never tire of exploring just the Medicine Man gallery.

(from wellcomecollection.org)

The Wellcome Collection is somewhere between going into a person’s home with exceptionally refined and bizarre tastes, and wandering into an old museum that has remained unchanged from its wunderkammer 19th century state. Also, did I mention it was absolutely free to go in? And they have free wifi? Truly a place of wonders. I especially loved some of the more elegant medical curiosities, like this wood and ivory carving of a 18th century anatomical demonstration. While the sculpture is obviously of an anatomy lesson, is the viewer of the art meant to learn as well? Or is this just capturing something the creator found beautiful, the progress of medicine and the intricacies of the body? I suppose every object in the Wellcome Collection also sparks as many questions as knowledge it imparts, sending you out even more inquisitive about the world.

(from wellcomecollection.org)

This scare-devil from the Nicobar Islands in the collection is also an extraordinary visual, with its top hat and insect-like wings. It would have been placed outside the house of someone who was sick to scare away the evils causing the illness. I got a tote bag in the Wellcome Collection gift shop with a scare-devil on it, so this should be a healthy summer for me.

I really recommend stopping in the Wellcome Collection if you happen to be in London, even if you only have an hour to take in a few stories from the amazing objects. It was a highlight of my trip and I plan to make it a staple of return turns. I am, after all, incurably curious.

Later this day, I would take a long walk along the Thames and find myself in another strange environ, although this would be haunted by the crackle of candles as I walked through rooms of antique objects.

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