Views & Reviews Review of the week

Sex and drugs and rock and roll

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39258.502153.59 (Published 28 June 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:1374
  1. Colin Martin, independent consultant in healthcare communication, London
  1. Cmpubrel{at}aol.com

    The long awaited revamp of the Wellcome Collection, which claims to be the world's first public venue devoted to looking at the human condition, impresses Colin Martin

    Steve Cross, one of the head curators at the Wellcome Collection, which has just undergone a £30m ($60m; €45m) facelift and reopened to the public last week, is impressed by the zeal of the collection's namesake. “It's strange to think that as well as building up one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies from scratch, Sir Henry had time to organise archaeological digs and run an army of collectors and curators scouring the world for interesting objects,” he said.

    The reorganised collection is located in the Wellcome Building, the Wellcome Trust's former headquarters in Euston Road, London. Built in 1931-4 by Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) to house his collection, library, and laboratories for research into tropical medicine, it has been sensitively transformed over the past five years by Hopkins Architects.

    Born in the US Midwest, Sir Henry was a pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and collector. In 1880 he established the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company in the United Kingdom with Silas Burroughs. Sir Henry became sole owner when Burroughs died in 1895, and he used a large part of the company's profits to collect more than a million medical, cultural, and anthropological objects from around the world. In his will he set up the Wellcome Trust, currently the world's second largest medical research charity, with investment assets of £14bn. This year it will spend £540m to support biomedical research and encourage public debate about the importance of research.

    “The Wellcome Collection has 1300 to 1500 exhibits on show, depending on how you count them,” said Ken Arnold, head of public programmes at the Wellcome Trust, who led the curatorial team responsible for developing exhibitions for the three dedicated galleries in the remodelled building.

    The Medicine Man gallery displays 500 artefacts from Sir Henry's original collection. Its designer, Gitta Gschwendtner, by using US walnut fittings in homage to Sir Henry's original offices at Snow Hill, has created an evocative space with a 1930s ambience. She also used cutout wooden capital letters to label the display cases, in a witty reference to art deco shop design. The exhibition is an edited version of one held at the British Museum in 2003; however, this time the focus is on the categories of objects Sir Henry collected rather than on the human body itself.

    One of the most striking displays consists of artificial limbs, arranged as legs and arms marching through a glass vitrine, like a disembodied army. In addition to artefacts, a 2002 film by the Brothers Quay called Phantom Museum: Random Forays into Sir Henry Wellcome's Medical Collection takes an idiosyncratic look at the part of his collection stored by the Science Museum.

    The Medicine Now gallery explores contemporary topics in medicine through science, art, and popular culture. Topics covered are the human genome, the human body, malaria, obesity, and the experience of medicine. Also designed by Gschwendtner and curated by Dr Cross, the gallery's radical style catapults visitors into the 21st century. Art exhibits are displayed within large red cubes, which function as mini-galleries within the larger gallery. This arrangement separates the works of art from the scientific and medical exhibits that have been selected to provide additional insight into the topics, which are displayed on theatrically oversized shelves.

    Sited throughout the gallery are “Sit down to hear . . .” chairs, activated by someone sitting on them and providing audio commentaries recorded by experts from relevant disciplines. It seems that the designer and curator missed a trick by not installing a treadmill operated commentary in the gallery's obesity section in front of John Isaac's I Can't Help the Way I Feel (2003), a lard-like sculpture of a shockingly obese figure almost engulfed in its own mass.

    The malaria section includes Veil of Tears (2007), a newly commissioned work by the artist Susie Freeman and the GP Liz Lee, which highlights the burden of malaria during the first five years of life for a child living in a town near Lake Victoria. It's an installation of four draped bed nets, linked by streamers of tiny colour photographs, stitched into lengths of net ribbon. Entrapped in the bed nets are individual multicoloured, foil wrapped tablets, stained microscope slides, and tiny metal wire mosquitoes, each identified by numerals written in red ink on tiny pieces of paper. Wax models of insects that are vectors for a range of tropical diseases, originally commissioned for the opening exhibition of the Wellcome Museum of Medical Science, allude to an earlier manifestation of Sir Henry's collection.

    “In the developed world we've conquered major diseases and started killing ourselves through overeating instead,” said Dr Cross, head curator of the Medicine Man gallery, on the different healthcare challenges in the developing and overdeveloped worlds.

    The third and largest Wellcome Collection gallery will stage four temporary exhibitions a year, presenting newly commissioned works and thematic shows on topics of medical, cultural, and ethical significance. The opening exhibition (until 16 September) is The Heart. It traces the history of medical understanding of the organ and also examines its symbolic and cultural significance. A worn and incomplete 18th century Italian wooden statuette of Mary, her torso and heart pierced with seven swords, now resembles a bizarre punk saint yet was venerated in religious processions.

    The exhibition's centrepiece is a display of hearts taken from different animal species, including one removed earlier this month from a 22 year old woman during a heart transplantation operation at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge. The co-curators James Peto and Emily Jo Sargent bought the stuffed shrew, which is part of the comparative display, on e-Bay for £30. At the height of his collecting, Sir Henry was spending more than the British Museum's annual budget for acquisitions each year. It is fitting that his collecting spirit lives on and that Wellcome Collection curators are using new technologies astutely. Goodness knows how many items Sir Henry would have collected had e-commerce been available to him.

    As well as displaying work from its holdings and commissioning new work, the Wellcome Collection also acts as a visual resource for artists and others internationally, through its collection of 200 000 images (http://images.wellcome.ac.uk). A good example of such work is Tools of the Trade (2003), a series of 21 starched white cloth squares thermally printed with images taken from scientific journals in the Wellcome Library, in which the Australia based artist and midwife Kate Lohse explores “the historical struggle between midwives and medical men for the control of childbirth.”

    Visitors to the Wellcome Collection also encounter a striking series of “satellite exhibits” displayed throughout the building. In the ground floor lobby is Marc Quinn's Silvia Petretii—Sustiva Tenofivir (2005), a whitish, life sized sculpture of a reclining woman, cast from polymer wax and drugs. Christine Borland's A Treasury of Human Inheritance, Worster-Drought's Case (Possible Congenital Suprabulbar Paresis) (2007), a mobile constructed from delicately coloured agate slices, hangs elsewhere in the building.

    “We believe we've been true to Sir Henry Wellcome's vision, with a contemporary twist,” concluded Clare Matterson, director of medicine, society, and history at the Wellcome Trust. “It's the world's first public venue that looks at the human condition.” Matterson is optimistic that the Wellcome Collection, which has an annual budget of £2m, will achieve its visitor target of 100 000 during its first 12 months of operation. Audience market research will provide another measure of its success.

    The Wellcome Collection ticks the boxes for sex and drugs. The venue looks set to rock too, with a members' club, cafe, and bookshop and a compelling programme of public events.

    At the height of his collecting, Sir Henry Wellcome was spending more than the British Museum's annual budget for acquisitions each year

    Footnotes