In honour of our 10th anniversary, which was in late November, and in keeping with our tradition with heading up north for anniversaries (mainly because I’m not keen on staying in the countryside (too much walking!) and there isn’t much else south of London besides the coast, which is definitely not a good idea in the winter), Marcus and I decided to spend a long weekend in Glasgow, as neither of us had ever been. This not only gave me an opportunity to meet Anabel from the Glasgow Gallivanter in person (photos in a future post) and eat deep fried Mars bars and a stupid amount of Tunnock’s Caramel Logs, it also finally allowed me to visit the Glasgow Hunterian, something I’ve been wanting to do for years.
“Living with Buildings” is the Wellcome Collection’s latest offering, which runs until 3 March 2019, and I popped along to see it a few weeks ago since I was in the neighbourhood anyway for “Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.” I’m not sure if the Wellcome could have picked a more boring name for this exhibition if they’d tried (at least for those of us who aren’t really into architecture), but I was hoping the content would prove better than the lacklustre name. Even the exhibition description was fairly vague, being simply that it was about how buildings affect our mental and physical health.
The exhibition is located in the Wellcome’s main gallery on the ground floor and is free, as their exhibitions always are, and doesn’t allow photographs, as their exhibitions mostly don’t. We were there a little bit later in the day than usual, which I think was a good time to visit as the crowds were much less than what they would have been at lunchtime (or people were just staying away because of the dull name). The exhibition opened with Charles Booth’s famous poverty maps of London (made in 1886-1903) showing the relative wealth of each street of London based on Booth’s interviews with its inhabitants (he’s pretty judgy too, as the poorest people were listed as “vicious, semi-criminal”), which are always interesting, even though I’ve seen them many times before.
This was one of the Wellcome’s more open layouts, and though there were a few little nooks and recesses, everything was basically in one large gallery. The exhibition appeared to be arranged more by topic than chronologically, and covered subject matter from the Victorian era, when people began to suspect that living in smoky, polluted cities might not be great for one’s health, to the Grenfell Tower fire just last year.
One of the nooks was about the rise of the “garden city” in the late Victorian era, which began when some of the more, shall we say, benevolent employers founded model villages for their employees to live in. I get that the intention behind it was mostly good – giving the employees a clean environment to live in away from the pollution of the cities, which also reduced their commute and gave them access to opportunities for recreation and self-improvement, but personally I find something a little creepy about it. I like the people I work with, but I don’t particularly want to live next door to them (you would never be able to weasel out of work functions, since they would know exactly where you were), and I sure as hell don’t want my boss overseeing what I do in my spare time. The Cadbury brothers, the founders of Bournville, even had a pamphlet published with rules for their employees to live by, going so far as to tell them how to sleep (single beds only) and how to breathe, which is dreadful (but I’m fine with the emphasis on cleanliness, given that these people were making chocolate)! Some of the posters in this section (reminiscent of old Tube posters – they may have been designed by the same people) did make the garden cities look awful tempting though (if you could ignore all the paternalistic garbage)! Even Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Collection, tried to get in on the action by designing Wellcomeville, a city that would have been built around a pharmaceutical factory and research laboratory, but it fell through in the end, and the research facility was just a stand-alone building in Bloomsbury.
There were quite a few films in here featuring what appeared to be interviews with inhabitants of various tower blocks, but the only one I actually sat down and watched was Catherine Yass’s film “Royal London,” showing the demolition of the old hospital. I could only watch a small part of it though, as the camera kept spiralling up and down staircases, and I started feeling a bit motion sick. I was glad to step outside of the film room and examine the huge scale model of a hospital from the 1930s, which was used to raise money for King Edward’s Hospital Fund (it was named after Edward VII, and carried on long after his reign (it actually still exists today under the name King’s Fund), rather than being a short-lived scheme of Edward VIII. I think Edward 8 was probably too busy canoodling with Wallis Simpson to have time for causes, though I suppose the same could be said of Eddy 7 and his many, many mistresses). Queen Mary donated some lace handkerchiefs which were used to make bedspreads for two of the miniature beds, but I can’t help but think that a donation of actual money would have been much more useful (I seem to recall that Mary was notoriously cheap). The hospital scale model sure was neat though; it had little doll versions of patients, doctors, and nurses occupying the miniature hospital rooms, and even a tiny x-ray machine and humorous murals decorating the hospital walls. I’d take that over a dollhouse any day!
Some other things I found interesting were the information about the rise of tower blocks, which were meant to be the wondrous self-contained living of the future, only for the shops within to either never open or fail and the buildings to become dilapidated due to shoddy construction and attract criminal activity; the posters for the Finsbury Health Centre contrasting clean modern living with dirty unhealthy old Britain (released during the war, these were actually banned by Churchill because he thought it was both an insult to pre-war Britain, and it would damage morale if people realised they were living under shitty conditions); and particularly the cartoons showing the differences between old dust-trap buildings, and new, presumably tidier ones (I totally look like the guy in the before version, who sat at work all day with his hand on his head because he had a headache from breathing in the noxious, unventilated fumes. Considering I work in a building that was built in 1904, has bars on the windows, and is rife with asbestos, it’s really not so surprising I get headaches almost every time I’m there).
And, in a depressing denouement, the exhibition showed how all these “brilliant” ideas from the 20th century about building for the future have mostly been a failure, and resulted in downright tragedy in the case of Grenfell Tower. There was a particularly chilling letter written by a tenants’ activist group a year or two before the fire expressing concerns about the new cladding and the fire safety procedures that instructed tenants to remain in their flats in case of fire, which they warned could lead to disaster, as indeed they did. Even the examples of the new developments in creating light and airy environments for hospital patients, which were plopped right before the exit and I think were meant to cheer us up a bit after the Grenfell stuff, were still a bit grim architecturally, though I suspect I am just really not a fan of modern architecture.
I thought the exhibition was certainly more interesting than its name had led me to believe, but was mostly just rather depressing (except for the above cartoon, which genuinely made me laugh out loud), as it appears that we still haven’t found a good solution to the problems of city living. I’m pretty sure almost no one wants to live in a tower block, but houses are completely unaffordable in London for all but the very wealthy, so until someone comes up with a better solution, that is the sad reality of the situation. I’ll give “Living with Buildings” 3/5, since it wasn’t quite as large as I was expecting, and was really rather dispiriting, though I guess I can’t entirely blame the Wellcome for the latter issue.
The temporary exhibition on the first floor of the Wellcome Collection has also changed over, and is no longer the delightfully creepy “Teeth,” but is instead a companion exhibit to “Living with Buildings” called “Global Clinic.” And that’s literally what it was – a new, mobile clinic design set up inside the gallery space, which will be deployed somewhere in need of an emergency clinic once the exhibition has ended. It is meant to be an improvement on tents and shipping containers, which are currently mostly what are used in disaster situations, and it certainly looked respectively more stable and lighter than those options. However, without the accoutrements of a clinic set up inside, it was literally just looking at a building structure, which was not terribly exciting. There were a few toy designs by students that were intended for use in developing countries in one corner of the gallery, and these were slightly more engaging, though not as much as they could have been if you were actually allowed to play with them. I think the Global Clinic is a good idea, but it’s not necessarily something that needed to physically be here, since although it is an eye-catching structure, seeing it in person wasn’t significantly more interesting than just reading about it. If you’re short on time, I think it’s certainly safe to just breeze right through it or give it a miss entirely! 1.5/5.
Like many people, I think, I am fascinated by the lives and barbaric deaths of Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their children. As I think I’ve said before, I even signed up for a Russian history class as an undergrad on the assumption that we would discuss the tsars, only to be disappointed when it was nothing but communism, communism, communism (I mean, communism is interesting too, but if that’s all you want to talk about, you should maybe call the class Soviet History instead to at least give people a clue. Not that I’m still salty about that C or anything…). So I was pretty excited about the Science Museum’s new temporary exhibition “The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution,” which also promised to contain a good dose of medical history, one of my favourite things. Admission to the exhibition is free, but you must book a ticket, which we found easy enough to do online on the day of the exhibition, shortly before we arrived. Normally I like to visit exhibitions in early-mid afternoon so I can avoid being caught in rush hour on the Tube on the way back, but on this particular afternoon, we were planning on going out to dinner after visiting the museum, so we booked the last slot of the day, at 4 (the museum closes at 6), and found the downstairs galleries of the museum virtually deserted, which was a rare treat. There were a handful of people in the exhibition, but I’m sure it was nothing like as crowded as it would have been during the day. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so I’ll post pictures of the objects I can find, and you’ll have to use your imagination for the rest.
I was both excited and apprehensive about seeing the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition: “Teeth.” Excited, because the publicity material they released before the exhibition made it look great; apprehensive, because despite my general love for all things gory and medical, historic dentistry creeps me out (even though I’m not really afraid of dentists. Orthodontists, yes (my orthodontist’s awfulness had to be experienced to be believed), but not really dentists. But if you are afraid of dentists, this may not be the post for you). But in the end excitement won out, and I strolled on over to the Wellcome after I visited Cook at the BL.
It’s finally autumn (the best season, obviously), and there’s a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, which is normally exciting in itself, so I should be happy, right? Well, unlike the Wellcome’s usual exhibition themes, which are either inherently fascinating to me (death, forensics, poop), or topics I can at least summon up a spark of interest in (electricity…see what I did there?), this one sounded like a real dud. Graphic design? Sorry, but no. In an ideal world, I’d go on to write how the Wellcome proved me wrong with their amazing exhibition, and really changed the way I think about graphic design, but we don’t live in that world, and I am not that blogger.
Photography is never allowed in the Wellcome’s main gallery space, which is particularly galling when the whole focus of the exhibition is graphics, but you can view a few of the images here. The Wellcome gets so crowded that I always try to come mid-day on a weekday (also so I have time to grab lunch from Roti King on the other side of Euston station – I’d never tried roti canai until I started eating there, but now I crave it pretty much all the time), but even that isn’t enough to avoid my fellow Londoners, because the museum is always hopping. I was dismayed to see there was an actual queue to look at the first set of cases, so I naturally bypassed it and headed straight for a display case in the middle of the room that almost no one was looking at. This turned out to contain graphics to do with anatomy, including a couple iPad models of the human body, and a small section on birth control with a few comic strips used by Planned Parenthood back in the infancy of the Pill. To be honest, I don’t think it made any difference what order I walked around in, because each display had a self-contained theme, and there wasn’t really any narrative tying the exhibition together; it was just a series of examples of different types of graphic design.
The line at the start of the exhibit eventually cleared, so I had a chance to meander over and check it out. This was the smoking themed section, and included both campaigns to encourage smoking (the designs of Silk Cut and Lucky Strike cigarette packets), and those against it, including a very bizarre Japanese poster on smoking etiquette that said something about how being scolded to pick a cigarette butt up was like being a child scolded for dropping candy wrappers (which to me sounds a little pro-smoker, but it was in the anti-smoking section, so maybe it lost something in translation).
The exhibition also dealt briefly with the design of fonts used in train stations and workplaces, which really had nothing to do with medicine at all, but I suppose the primary focus was indeed medical, because most of the other displays tied into medicine in some way; most obviously in the section on the design of prescription drugs, which has apparently been heavily influenced by an Israeli designer who came up with the idea of putting a big colourful shape on the front of prescription drug packets so pharmacists would be able to see with ease exactly what they were handing out, and thus avoid making dangerous mistakes. There was also a Swiss pharmaceutical company called JR Geigy AG that was renowned for its “ground-breaking” designs, though I do not remember exactly what they were.
There were displays on hospitals, mental health, and children’s medicine, but my favourite display was undoubtedly the one on epidemic disease. This contained some of the few properly historical objects in the museum, including posters warning about the spread of plague in 17th century Italy, and Victorian ones about cholera. There were some Dutch (I think? Damn this no picture rule!) designers that moved to Africa in the 1950s or ’60s and designed colourful posters explaining how leprosy is spread, and their work was here as well. Probably most visually striking, however, was the work done on the AIDS campaign in the 1980s-90s including a tombstone emblazoned with the word AIDS in giant red letters. There were also posters that went up in places like hospital waiting rooms and tattoo shops explaining how AIDS was spread, and also tying in with AIDS (sort of) was the display of condom packets (I was amused by the brand called OOOPH!) which came in an impressive and rather hilarious array of designs.
I feel like this exhibition was a lot smaller than most of the Wellcome’s major exhibitions, because it was limited to one large room, rather than a whole series of galleries like normal. I suppose it worked well with the theme, because it was bold visually and there wasn’t an overarching story to tell for which being led around a progression of galleries would make sense, but it nonetheless didn’t make for a particularly impressive exhibition. I left feeling just as uninspired by graphic design as I was when I went in – I suppose it might save my life, to answer the question in the title of the exhibition, but that doesn’t make it intrinsically interesting. I’m sticking with my initial description of dud for this one. 2.5/5 – it might be OK if you have a strong interest in graphic design, but if you were expecting something with a lot of informative text about the history of medicine and how graphic design tied into medical advances, like I was, you’re going to leave disappointed.
I also have to report that the Wellcome updated its Spirit Booth, which I was really excited to have my picture taken in last winter, and it was not an update for the better. Not only do you no longer get a physical copy of your photo (it’s all online), you have to answer a series of questions (in your mind) first, which would be fine, except for the voice in the booth pauses for about a full minute between each question, and you’re left sitting there in the dark wondering whether the booth is malfunctioning (for real, it doesn’t take a minute to read five words of text). They asked for feedback on the Spirit Booth, so here it is: put it back to the way it was before, or at least speed up the voice!
I was originally intending on mentioning this exhibit at the end of the “Robots” post, because I thought there was no way I was going to have very much to say about “Robots” other than “there were a shitload of robots.” But then I ended up running on for 1400+ words, as I do, and whilst I didn’t want to spend two weeks just talking about temporary exhibits at the Science Museum, neither did I want to shortchange “Wounded” because it really was a very nice little exhibition. So here we are.
“Wounded” opened in summer 2016, and will run until January 2018. It is a free exhibition, but is somewhat hidden on what they call “Floor G,” which is not actually the ground floor, rather, up a short flight of stairs from the ground floor (I think there is lift access, but probably only from one particular set of lifts, because the Science Museum is built weirdly like that). This “hiddenness” is probably a good thing, because it is blissfully quiet up there compared to the rest of the museum (for the most part…bit of foreshadowing there). (For real, don’t underestimate the value of a quiet gallery in the Science Museum, because it is normally absolutely crawling with school groups, and the place gets loud! I briefly worked there some years ago (temp job during the London Olympics), and would spend my breaks retreating to either the Wellcome galleries on the 4th and 5th floors, or if I didn’t have time to get up there (because they can only be accessed by one set of lifts, or a hard-to-find flight of stairs), I’d go to this strange old-fashioned gallery on the 2nd or 3rd floor that was just full of old-timey farming dioramas, and never had anyone in there. I’m not even sure if it still exists, to be honest, but its silence was much appreciated at the time.)
Anyway, “Wounded” tells the story of medicine in the First World War, which is basically exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in (I guess more specifically it’s meant to be medicine at the Battle of the Somme, hence the July 2016 start date, but it seemed to cover medicine throughout the war years. I’m not sure whether this exhibit has any connection with Emily Mayhew’s book of the same name, which I just started reading, as they cover the same subject matter, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of it inside the exhibit. Then again, I might not have noticed, because I didn’t know that the book existed until I spotted a copy at the library last week). Where I think “Robots” failed a bit by having the quality of the signage not quite match up to the glories of the robots on display, here I think the Science Museum got things just right, because the amount of text relative to artefacts was just perfect. And it was really interesting stuff, too!
The first room dealt mainly with the reactions of soldiers to war, and included a good selection of “lucky charms” that they carried with them into battle (I thought the black cat pin was cute, but a rather curious choice as a good luck symbol). It also had an early gas mask, and mentioned that soldiers who weren’t familiar with them would often panic from the chemical smell coming from the gas masks themselves, believing that they weren’t working. Because, as the exhibit said, gas attacks did just as much to destroy morale as they did bodies.
The next room was probably the most interesting (to me, anyway). It was about battlefield medicine, in particular the four different stages of the casualty evacuation chain, from getting hauled off the field by stretcher bearers (who were trained in basic first aid), going to a dressing station (where they would do their best to stabilise a patient, but were really only equipped to deal with relatively minor injuries), progressing to a casualty clearing station (located behind the front lines, these could perform major operations, such as limb amputations), and finally to an actual hospital – typically a hospital ship or train would transport the patient back to Britain for further treatment or convalescence (the hospital trains were a necessity because incoming troops and supplies took priority over wounded soldiers, so sometimes trains carrying casualties would have to wait for days to move along the tracks, and the soldiers could easily die en route if the trains weren’t fully medically equipped). This was where the exhibit probably related most to the Somme specifically, because early in the war, on the Western Front, casualty clearing stations were the first port of call for medical treatment, and they were really more for minor things like changing dressings, rather than performing operations. Any serious injuries would have to be dealt with in hospitals away from the battlefield, but so many men were dying before reaching this point that the RAMC realised there had to be a better way. Thus the four stage system was born, and it was pretty much up and running just in time for the Battle of the Somme.
The exhibit also discussed medical innovations during the war, such as blood transfusions (doctors were able to store blood thanks to the use of sodium citrate as an anticoagulant), and one technique that actually harked back to the otherwise dark days of Victorian medicine: the Thomas Splint. Before traction splints were used, 80%(!) of soldiers with fractured femurs ended up dying from their wounds, many before even reaching a dressing station, mainly because the broken bone was located by the femoral artery; when they were being transported by stretcher, it would inevitably be jarred at some point, and it would sever the artery and they’d bleed out. Robert Jones, a Welsh surgeon, realised that a pioneering splinting technique invented by his uncle, Hugh Owen Thomas, the century before, could help stabilise femur wounds during transport; after this splint entered general use, the mortality rate from femur wounds dropped to 16%.
Then came what should have been the most poignant section of the exhibit; the one dealing with the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers who had received life-changing injuries. Unfortunately, this was also the point when a group of schoolchildren entered the exhibition, along with their teacher. However, they weren’t actually looking at the exhibits, or being taught anything. Rather, they were just running amuck, yelling, and occasionally stopping to point at pictures of injured soldiers, going, “Look, they only have one leg!” and “Look, they’re missing an eye!” I sincerely hope these children don’t do this when they see disabled people in real life, and I was really annoyed that their teacher was letting them behave like this in a very serious exhibition, and doing nothing to stop it. These kids were about 7 or 8, so certainly old enough to know better, and it could have been a good opportunity to teach them about compassion, but this teacher was just completely checked out, and didn’t care what they did. I mean, really, the whole rest of the museum is open for kids to run through and act as obnoxiously as they like, so the teacher couldn’t have kept them out of this one exhibit that they would have had to go out of their way to enter?! OK, rant over.
Mercifully, they did eventually leave (I was glaring at them the whole time, which might have helped), and I was finally free to give the displays the attention they deserved. There was a fair bit of material relating to St. Dunstan’s Hospital for blind and wounded soldiers, including Braille watches and typewriters, which were really cool. These were part of the attempt to help blinded soldiers adapt to their new life by giving them work to do so they could feel useful again. There was also a collection of scrapbooks with illustrations done by convalescing soldiers, and some information on pioneering plastic surgery techniques developed during the war (though this is covered in more detail at the Hunterian Museum et al, so they didn’t dwell on it here).
The prosthetics were also very interesting (Wimbledon War Worker’s Depot, which was located up the street from my flat, made prosthetic limbs and splints, though none of these seemed to be from there). Apparently one prosthetic arm from America was particularly in demand because it looked very good, but only officers could afford to buy it, and they soon realised that it was too heavy to be of practical use, so most of them ended up mouldering away in drawers somewhere. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “Does it Matter,” was printed on one of the walls, and it made me tear up a little (poem here, please read!). (I have a soft spot for most of the War Poets, particularly that rather dishy Rupert Brooke (who died from an infected mosquito bite, poor guy. Denied even the “glory” of dying in battle).)
The exhibit ended with a small display of objects belonging to modern wounded soldiers, including a t-shirt ripped by shrapnel, and a small stuffed monster that one soldier used to personify his PTSD, which helped him cope with it. There was also a short video about modern soldiers, which I didn’t have time to watch, because I had already spent way longer than anticipated looking around this excellent little exhibit. Even though I have always been interested in medical history, I still managed to learn quite a lot in “Wounded.” I think the Science Museum got it just right this time; informative, poignant, and entertaining. Definitely stop by to see this if you find yourself near the Science Museum; I think it needs a little love! 4/5.
Since blogging about Forensics early in 2015, I hadn’t returned to the Wellcome Collection for a proper look around (confession: I have used their toilets when I’m in the area, because it’s better than paying 20 or 30p for the gross ones at Euston Station), having skipped the last couple of special exhibits mainly because it seemed like they were always super crowded (and one of them involved walking through a room where you apparently couldn’t really see anything. Bumping into strangers is not my cup of tea), so I thought I might as well catch the latest one, even though their no photography policy doesn’t make for very visually appealing posts.
“Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond,” runs until 15th January 2017, and is free, like everything in the Wellcome. It was done in partnership with the Bethlem Museum of the Mind; some of you may have read my guest post on These Bones of Mine about the Bethlem Museum, and recall that I wasn’t too impressed with it. Unfortunately, it was a similar story with the Bedlam exhibit at the Wellcome; if it had been at another museum, I would have thought it was perfectly fine, but based on the previous high standards of the Wellcome, it seemed a little lacking.
The exhibit was meant to be divided into “scenes from Bedlam,” however, I didn’t really get the whole “scene” concept, as there didn’t seem to be a unique theme for each room because the exhibit had been mostly arranged chronologically rather than thematically. The first room appeared to be some kind of art installation relating to people’s experiences of psychiatric institutions, and then the exhibit began talking about the history of “Bedlam” itself (the nickname for Bethlem Hospital, which gradually seeped into the lexicon as a synonym for chaos), which was founded in the 13th century, and inhabited a number of different buildings around London before moving to Beckenham, where it is still located today. As you might expect, standards of care varied widely over the centuries, with the 18th century seen as a particularly appalling time: Georgians would pay admission to view the “lunatics” as a “fun” diversion, and many of the patients were kept chained at all times, like one poor man named James Norris, whose story was detailed here. James (who was described as an “insane American”) was kept chained by his neck to a post, with a metal cage over his upper arms so he couldn’t raise them, for over 14 years! The most appalling thing is that apparently no one could remember the initial reason he had been chained up, they just left him like that as it was the way it had always been done, despite the fact that he wasn’t violent, and was capable of rational conversation. There were also a range of books and plays from this period that showed how madness was portrayed in popular culture, but overall, this section wasn’t terribly engaging.
The 19th century saw a move to slightly more humane treatment of patients, though some doctors still insisted that keeping the patients chained or straitjacketed was the best thing for them (by contrast, late 19th century Broadmoor (of all places!) seems to have been remarkably humane. I’ve recently read The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale, which has detailed descriptions of life there (and is generally a pretty interesting book)). This section of the exhibit was located under a dome; I suppose it was meant to mirror the dome of the Victorian Bethlem, which is the current location of the Imperial War Museum (and very dome-y it is indeed), but the main benefit was that the two concentric circles the displays were arranged in left more room for people to look around than the Wellcome’s normal configuration. There was actually a lot of wonderful art created by patients in this section (sorry, “scene”), but probably the most interesting thing of all was a set of samplers made by a woman who believed she’d been confined unfairly. Her stitching was partly an artistic outlet, of course, but the samplers were also basically rambling letters to Queen Victoria pleading for her release, which I think she attempted to mail to the Queen. The whole story was very sad. There was a movie room off to the right of this section, which was showing a strange German film called Caligari and the Sleepwalker, based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which a man who believed he was an extraterrestrial entered an extremely odd institution run by a bearded and bespectacled doctor, who was constantly chomping on gum and communicated with the patient via chalkboard. I could only take about five minutes of this before I had to leave; it was just too damn bizarre.
There was a fairly unmemorable room about how the discovery of diazepam and similar drugs changed the treatment of mental illness (thankfully, there was only a brief mention of electroshock, because that freaks me out bad); the only thing of note in here was a series of drawings by Ugo Guarino that showed the negative side of psychiatric treatments in the 1970s, and helped lead to the closing of outdated hospitals in Italy, and the opening of modern mental health centres instead.
The final room contained current psychiatric patients’ ideas of what would make for an ideal hospital; their ideas sounded lovely, like having treehouses they could retreat to when they wanted to be alone, a kitten petting room, and really comfy sofas and beds so they could just spend the whole day reading and watching TV, but it did raise some interesting questions for me, in that this ideal hospital sounds much nicer than the real world, so I’m not sure how well it would equip people to deal with the demands of the outside world. I think it’s a tricky balance to strike, between giving people a calm, safe, and caring environment, but also an environment that will help them integrate successfully back into mainstream society, which can be a scary place for all of us (certainly us introverts anyway).
I wasn’t overly impressed with the exhibit as a whole, as most of the artefacts just seemed to be old books open to title pages or not particularly interesting-looking passages. There were a few tablets laying out, but to be honest, I’m far less likely to pick up some random tablet that has been slung on a table seemingly as an afterthought than I am to engage with a normal interactive touchscreen that’s more clearly part of a display, so they didn’t really enhance the interactivity for me. The best part was definitely the art produced by psychiatric patients, which was poignant and insightful, but Bethlem Museum of the Mind had way more of that sort of thing, and I still didn’t think that museum was terribly good, so the same goes for the Wellcome. A rare dud. 3/5.
“Making Nature: How we see Animals” is another temporary exhibit at the Wellcome that happened to open on the day of my visit. This is located in the smaller exhibition space on the first floor, so it was only two rooms. However, it did contain some interesting stuff, most notably information on the building of the Natural History Museum (designed by Richard Owen, the pioneering, yet controversial 19th century paleontologist and zoologist), where I learned that until the 1920s, the design included a statue of Adam that was meant to show man’s dominion over the animal kingdom (not surprising because Richard Owen seemed to be quite religious); as well as information about the creation of the hilarious Crystal Palace dinosaurs (again, designed by Richard Owen. In many cases, the dinosaurs look a bit off because Owen was simply going off the best theories available at the time, which have since been proven wrong (although apparently even he thought the Iguanodon looked a bit ridiculous), but that’s part of what makes them such a delight. Crystal Palace is a bitch to get to, but perhaps I should go back one of these days so I can blog about it!). Because the exhibit was largely about how nature is portrayed in museums, there was a bit of taxidermy: a delightful tableau from 1876 showing fox cubs at play, and even better, one of the elusive pieces from Walter Potter’s museum, with anthropomorphic squirrels playing cards. I’m still angry at myself for missing the Potter Museum auction (even though I doubt I could have afforded anything anyway), so I’m always delighted to see his pieces pop up somewhere.
Also on the first floor, hiding in the corner next to the nifty spiral staircase, was a “Spirit Booth” meant to capture your “psychic transparency,” whatever the hell that is. Basically, it was a free photo booth that would insert a sort-of ghost in your photo, so I was all for it. Mine ended up with a skeleton “spirit” which is so me; the only bad part is that my photograph will now apparently appear online (update: just found it, so you can see it for yourself), and let me tell you, there was some unfortunate lighting in that booth. Oh well, I guess the skeleton makes up for it…? But yeah, if you go to the Wellcome in the near future (“Making Nature” runs until May), definitely go up to the first floor to check out the exhibit and get your photo taken, since to be honest, I enjoyed that part of the museum more than “Bedlam.”
It’s appropriate that this post falls near my third blogging anniversary (which was last Sunday, by the way!), because this is Bristol: Take 2, wherein I finally visit the Glenside Museum that I mentioned three long years ago. In that post, I said it was open on Wednesdays and Fridays, but either I had it wrong, or they’ve changed their opening hours, because it is actually open from 10-12:30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The museum is part of the campus of the University of the West of England (catchy name), and is housed in what was the hospital’s chapel, a rather imposing grey Victorian building.
Though there is a parking lot right next to the museum, the museum says on their website that they don’t offer parking, so I’m assuming it was only for students and faculty of the university, or else museum volunteers. However, we easily found parking on the street right around the corner from the museum (we visited on the Wednesday though, it may well be more crowded on Saturdays), so it wasn’t a major issue or anything. Upon entering the museum, the first thing that hit me was the whiff of authentic smells. I somehow doubt they were intentionally piped in, I think these were AUTHENTIC authentic smells, if you get my drift. The second thing I noticed was the mannequin guarding the door, which initially freaked me out as I thought it was a real person (not because she looked particularly realistic, just because when you briefly glance at a person-shaped object, you assume it’s a person. I’m not yet as bad as my poor mother, who once said, “excuse me sir,” when she bumped into a department store mannequin. My brother and I will never let her live it down).
Terrible awesome mannequins would be a hallmark of this museum.
The museum is run on a donation only basis, and as there was no one at the front desk, it was very much a no-pressure arrangement. While I appreciated that aspect of it, I did find it odd that none of the staff/volunteers acknowledged our presence at any point, despite there being a considerable number of them running around the building, and apparently making very smelly food for lunch (separate from the authentic smells, this was some kind of revolting meat-stink). I don’t want someone following me around the whole time, or watching my every move, but it might have been nice if someone had at least greeted us and maybe gave a brief overview of the museum or something. The only encounter I did have with the people working there is when one of them pushed past us to show someone else something in one of the cases (from what I overheard, it sounded like the guy might have been staging a play version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted some ECT related props to use in it), which was just a bit rude, as they were talking loudly and pretended we weren’t there. That was really the only off-putting aspect of Glenside though.
Because, the museum was far bigger than I had been anticipating, and packed with lots of cool old medical stuff. Glenside was originally called the Bristol Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1861, and it remained a psychiatric hospital (though the name eventually evolved into the less-offensive Glenside) throughout its 130 year history, until it closed in 1994 (that’s minus the three years it served as a war hospital during WWI). The first gallery of the museum was a bit too text-heavy when explaining the history of the hospital, but that gave way to a corridor with lots of smaller rooms full of psychiatric stuff of varying degrees of creepiness. For example, I really liked the set of cards depicting various types of mental illness; a lengthy explanation was provided, but I think the gist of it was that they were made so illiterate people in India had a pictorial representation of the symptoms, in case their family members displayed any of them. And those vintage light-up brain diagrams were right up my alley (and they still worked!).
But I was super creeped out by the lobotomy/electroshock therapy room (apparently in the UK, lobotomies are called leucotomies, which doesn’t make them sound any better). I can’t even watch the aforementioned One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (I had to see it once for a psychology class, and never again), and I’ve mentioned before how reading The Bell Jar at a formative age imbued me with a complete and lasting terror of ECT. I also know there’s books on the history of lobotomies out there, and despite my fascination with almost every other gruesome aspect of medical history, I just can’t bring myself to read them. So yeah, though I still looked at the ice pick that was jammed into someone’s brain, and some mannequin dioramas depicting lobotomies, I tried not to think about them too much, and I was relieved to leave that room behind me.
Not that Victorian straitjackets and padded cells were much cheerier, but at least it didn’t involve someone excising vital chunks of the brain. And I was actually really interested in the display of drugs used historically to treat mental illness. And the display of bedpans, because that was very much back on weirdo-Jessica territory.
I should mention that aside from the first room, with its text overload, captions were otherwise fairly sparse in the museum, so it didn’t take a tonne of time to look around all the other rooms. To be honest, it was still longer than I was imagining we would spend there; going by the website, I was somehow picturing the exhibits to be smaller and crappier than they actually were.
In addition to the macabre bits, there were also aspects of this museum that were poignant, as you would expect from a Victorian mental institution. There were photographs and biographies of some of the patients, as well as recollections of the hospital from some 20th century patients (one just remembered it smelling of urine, which maybe explains the authentic smells aspect). I was also struck by the account of a hairdresser at the hospital who commented on how overjoyed some of the patients were to have their hair styled, simply because they weren’t used to anyone taking care of them, or making them feel like a person, including one woman who always requested a golden rinse for her white hair to make it blonde (I was kind of picturing Betty White in her Golden Girls era when I read that).
I mentioned earlier how Glenside also took in injured soldiers during WWI, when it was known as Beaufort War Hospital. They also had displays relating to the war years, including what I believe was a temporary display on postcards (with children’s activities) and what they meant to soldiers. They had also done profiles of some of the soldiers who stayed in the hospital, which were quite interesting to me as they were very similar to the work I’ve been doing on the WWI project I volunteer with.
The building was maybe a wee bit odd in that it still had all the accoutrements of a church up, but with displays all in front of them. There was even a display right in front of the altar, of art made by various museum volunteers, and this stuff was surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because if someone asked me to produce a piece of art, it would look like a non-artistically-inclined 5 year old made it (I was that 5 year old, and things haven’t improved much in adulthood. All my friends and family know better than to ask me to help with any craft projects, unless they don’t mind wonky scissor work). But their work was alright, and I especially liked the tapestry showing the history of medicine in Bristol, with a square devoted to the first cholera outbreak.
Aside from the rather cold (well, more non-existent) reception, I really enjoyed this museum. I don’t know if it was necessarily worth the three year wait, but I am glad I eventually got around to seeing it, because those mannequins were just as menacing as I was hoping, and the museum ended up having a fair bit to offer beyond them. Even if psychiatry freaks me out more than other branches of medicine, there were still some very cool objects here, although I will concede they could perhaps be better organised or displayed in a more appealing manner (for me, that dated look (and the mannequins!) is a large part of the appeal, but I know I’m in the minority). Still, for a free museum (with dismayingly limited opening hours), it was A-OK. Not quite up to the standard of Dr. Guislain’s, by which all psychiatric museums are measured (by me), but then few things are. 3.5/5.