London: The Wellcome Galleries @ the Science Museum

The Science Museum finally opened their new medicine galleries last November, and I only just visited them recently. I know it’s probably surprising that I’ve waited so long, given my love of medical history, but I have my reasons. I am salty about many things, and these medical galleries are one of them, mainly because I would have killed to work on them (even though the salaries at the Science Museum for the jobs I was going for are significantly lower than what I make now, because big museums can get away with it) and of course I didn’t even get an interview for anything I applied for. I also had a weird attachment to their old medical galleries, mainly because they were really hard to find and barely anybody knew about them, so you usually had them all to yourself. But all things must change, and I guess the Science Museum having a whopping £24 million to throw at them didn’t hurt either. So I finally decided to pay them a visit to see if they lived up to the hype.

“Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries,” are free to visit, just like the rest of the Science Museum (barring special exhibitions) and now seemingly take up much of the first floor, though I’ve frankly always found the layout of the Science Museum a bit strange and confusing, as there are certain galleries that can only be accessed from one particular set of stairs, and I swear there’s galleries that I managed to find once and then never again. Did the agriculture galleries really exist, or were they just a figment of my imagination? Anyway, although I’m quite sure Henry Wellcome engaged in some unsavoury practices, as did all late 19th century/early 20th century pharmaceutical companies (and modern pharmaceutical companies, for that matter. Just look at all those bloody Sackler galleries that still exist)/collectors of objects from colonies in the British Empire, I don’t know where we’d be without him, as his possessions seem to make up the bulk of medical history collections in London; in fact, if it wasn’t for him and William Hunter (who may have been a murderer, jury’s still out), we might not have any medical history museums here at all, and these galleries are no exception, as the name indicates.

 

On first glance, the new space was certainly very visually appealing. The medical history collections used to be kept on the fourth and fifth floors, and though I loved all the weird life-sized dioramas, they were a bit stuffy. This space is completely open and huge (apparently it takes up an area equivalent to 1500 hospital beds), and you’re greeted by a giant bronze tattooed man who seems to watch over the place like a guardian. Each wall of the first gallery is lined with cases, but because the room is so spacious, you kind of have to work your way up one side and then back down the other, which does ruin the chronology a bit. The first gallery, which I believe is called “Medicine and Bodies,” is a look at the human body throughout history, the development of the study of human anatomy, etc. From there, the gallery flows into “Exploring Medicine,” which is where most of Henry Wellcome’s collections have ended up, and then the last room holds “Medicine and Treatment,” “Medicine and Communities,” (didn’t see much distinction between those two), and “Faith, Hope, and Fear,” which is mainly a collection of wooden icons from various religions, and a really creepy modern sculpture (as seen above left. It’s meant to be a healing Madonna figure (as in the mother of Jesus, not the pop star), but something about the patient being encapsulated in her dress makes it read more like an iron maiden to me).

First, the good. I thought the space looked fantastic, and there were a lot of wonderful displays of old public health posters, which I just loved (how cute is that baby elephant?). The calibre of the artefacts on display was also excellent – mixed in with the more mundane, you’d find things like the medical kit Scott took to the South Pole (the expedition where he died), the lancets Edward Jenner used for some of the first vaccinations, and Louis Pasteur’s microscope. You could easily spend hours in here just discovering everything. It was also a lot more interactive than the old galleries – although I didn’t get to try all of the games because the most fun ones were in use, I tried enough to get a sense of what was on offer (the Disease Controller game looks especially fun, as you not only get to infect people, you make the ceiling light up whilst doing so!).

 

I also thought the nature of the displays did a good job at drawing attention to the sheer beauty of some of the objects, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect from medical implements. I am definitely the sort of person that prefers the grotesque to the sublime, but I could see the aesthetics of the galleries drawing in people who mightn’t ordinarily be interested in medical history. But conversely, because I am an old (youngish) fuddy-duddy at heart, that also kind of annoys me. I prefer having the galleries to myself – I know this isn’t the best thing for the museum, but I feel that if you weren’t willing to go out of your way to look at the old musty galleries, you don’t deserve to hog space (or the interactives) in the shiny new ones.

 

Unfortunately, by making the space really interactive and eye-catching, I think they lost a lot of the traditional medical history feeling that I so love. Because Wellcome’s objects were all shoved into one big case that stretched up well above eye level, you lost the ability to appreciate the value of each individual object for the sake of aesthetics. Instead of having a description of each individual item, as they used to, there would only be one brief description of a whole group of items, or nothing at all. Since I get the impression Henry Wellcome basically stole a lot of those artefacts from other cultures, I think the least we can do is take the time to appreciate the cultural significance of each one, and it’s hard to do that when you’re looking at a hundred memento mori all placed together with no individual labels. I also thought the life-sized photographs of present day doctors spread throughout the gallery were fairly unnecessary, and didn’t really add anything to my experience. They just took up floor space.

 

With that said, I do think this is still a wonderful place to visit for anyone interested in medical history; it’s just sacrificed some of its charm in the move. It is absolutely worth checking out if you find yourself in the museum, and I will definitely be back to examine it in more depth, especially because this and the actual Wellcome Collection are all I have left (other than the smaller museums at various hospitals and medical societies that only really merit one visit) whilst the Hunterian is still undergoing redevelopment (please, please don’t ruin it!). 3.5/5. And, from the perspective of someone who loved studying infectious disease, how interesting is coronavirus?! Obviously I don’t want it, and it’s scary to think that among the albeit much smaller sample size we have thus far, it has the same mortality rate as Spanish flu did, but from an historical and sociological perspective, I am absolutely fascinated. And since my office is right next to the museum’s public toilet where I can hear people hacking up a lung on a daily basis, let’s be honest, I probably will get it at some point if it spreads much more.

 

 

8 comments

  1. This is definitely going on the list for my next visit. I understand your conflict. Modern museum displays that are well lit and visually appealing are great, but there is something so appealing about the dark, musty places. Maybe that’s why the Mutter is so great – it still has that old fashioned feel, but with plenty of signage and interesting displays.

    1. The timing wasn’t intentional, but I am trying to get as many museum visits in while I can in case they’re closed down. I certainly wish the one I work at was closed, but as the council we work for has not even provided us with hand sanitizer, wipes, or anything else, our health doesn’t seem to be a priority. Yet my old uni in the States has been completely shut down, despite no cases yet in the county where it is. Widely varying responses so far!

      1. So far, I’ve had one concert cancelled. A school was shut because someone who had visited it had had contact with someone had the virus, but after a day of deep cleaning it’s reopening. Not much else seems to be happening, but I suspect we are nearing the tipping point.

  2. I’d love to see this next time I’m in London, particularly having done a lot of work with the Wellcome Trust and previously enjoyed the old history of medicine displays at the Science Museum. I agree that coronavirus has a morbid fascination from a historical perspective; let’s hope most of us stay safe!

    1. Obviously I’d rather not get it, but I do think it would be better to get it out of the way sooner rather than later whilst there are still enough resources in place to deal with it. But from the latest reports I’ve read from Italy, it seems like the mortality rate is approaching something more like 10% there, which is terrifying. It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, the official response is here when it spreads more.

  3. I can see from the photos that the gallery really has attractive displays, but agree with you that sometimes the old musty galleries have a real appeal, particularly for these sorts of artifacts. Let’s all hope that this virus dies out soon. We really don’t need another 1918.

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