Yesterday I went with M and my friends Alice and Kate to the Wellcome Museum. It was one of those museum-going experiences that lives up to its name– startling and beautiful enough to be a muse of sorts. It is no surprise the museum’s collections have inspired anthologies of fiction in The Phantom Museum, as well as a Quay Brothers film of the same name.
Glaxo Wellcome, the company behind the trust which funds the museum, manufactures the anti-AIDs drug Retrovir (AZT), and has also come under fire for charging an inhumane price for it. This company also makes Ventolin, an inhaler that has dramatically increased my quality of life and no doubt the lives of countless other asthmatics.
Henry Wellcome was, among other things, a collector. An American expatriate from the mid-west, this is where our commonality ends. He was a door-to-door drug salesman turned Sir, immersed in men’s clubs and colonial and capitalist pursuits. The summary of his life reads like a book I would avoid, yet I am completely compelled by him, and not just because of the impressive moustache. It is, I confess, his Sadean magpie tendencies, only barely visible in the public collection, that threaten to obsess me.
In 1913 he opened a museum of medical history to display objects he had acquired on his travels, but one had to petition in writing to enter the museum, as he did not want “stragglers” in attendance. The museum closed in 1932 and his collection remained in storage for many years. Now a portion of the collection is displayed artfully in the new Wellcome Museum which is free to the public. The small selection of objects are arranged thematically in the Medicine Man gallery in a Freudian triad of birth, sex and death.
The sensation upon entering is that of a straggler walking into a slick, Scandinavian Design wunderkammer. The walls are paneled with a warm wood and the collection displayed within them is almost without text– curation optional. Explanation is secreted away: one must open small doors in the walls in order to read acompanying text, or slide out a drawer to hear an audio commentary. The visitor is left with all the mystery and emotional complexity of the objects themselves.
Death in a medical museum is obvious. Increasingly we encounter death in a clinical setting, and death itself has been pathologized. But sex and medicine is something rarely talked about. Immediately one notices Wellcome’s two portraits, both with a bold moustache. In one he sports a headress adorned with vulvic shells and his eyes sparkle with a singlemindedness, the charismatic maddess of a Rasputin. He is teh hotness. (This other image of Wellcome dressed as a monk is from the Wellcome Library Archives)
To cure one must also seduce. All my life I have been a patient, a sickly girl. Before a man ever touched me with love, doctors had their way with me. (I survived what could be called molestation at the hands of a doctor, but that is actually not what I am getting at here.) I have had a crush on a doctor who was young and attentive and seemed at the time to cure me.
Many of the amulets and tools on display are sexual devices– a tortoise shell dildo or tiny sexual positions diagrammed inside ceramic fruit. But many of the non-erotic items seem to argue the erotic power of the ameliorative object: an elegant artificial hand, more beautiful than the one it replaces; a web of satin ribbons for repositioning the ears, an ebony-handled saw.
The patient’s faith and trust can’t be coaxed or bribed or threatened into being. Perhaps this is why Wellcome gathered not only countless forcepts and knives but also phallic amulets and tera cotta offerings like vulvic cakes– some of the most moving objects in the collection. The smoothed, triangular shape of the vulvas look like huge tablets–“tabloids”– the form which Wellcome invented. Wellcome’s interest in drug marketing must have lead him to remote places in search of such faith-loaded objects, but this can only be a partial explanation of his collection. (It is no surprise that until 1995 the logo for the company was a unicorn, the elusive animal who would only show itself to the pure and faithful.)
But perhaps most marvelous and strange are the torture implements Wellcome collected– a scold’s bridle– an iron mask meant to be worn by women, often accused witches, on their way to burning. Also a chair of blades which is displayed keenly next to a birthing chair and a 19th century dentist’s chair. One notices on the Victorian chair the wooden lions’ heads decorating the armrests have had their manes worried down to smooth, shining masses by the pain-grip of numerous patients, and the footrest contains a bar to brace the feet. Also amongst these torture implements are little spiked rings– male anti-masturbating devices, displayed next to a bog-standard iron and velvet chastity belt, said to be medieval but probably a 19th century fetish object.
One could argue that the fascination with these objects is morbid and voyeuristic, but I am more intrested in Wellcome’s reason for obtaining them. Could it have been a leap of compassion on his part? An attempt to present in material form the more abject and complex condition the sick face in the hands of an always inadequate medical establishment? That brutal and demeaning control of the body, the many uses of pain– what patient of a chronic and near-fatal illness could forget it? Not I.