No Wondercabinet for the Waxworks

Yesterday I braved the den of screaming children that is the Science Museum to see what I thought was their revamped display of the Wellcome collection.  I’d read about it on one of my favourite blogs, Morbid Anatomy.  Wellcome’s eccentric somatic artifacts fascinate me, as does the man himself.  The sample collection on display at the Wellcome museum is a very tough act to follow, and I was disappointed to find there was nothing new in the Science Museum’s History of Medicine display, save at the entrance which featured snippets from the Brother’s Quay film that uses some of the collection.  There are a few fascinating objects here– a velvet-lined drug chest, elegant bullet extractors and the loneliest mummy in London. The rest is just dimly lit and numbingly chronological, with dry notations in an 80’s font.

Apparently what has been revamped is the online gallery. While missing the wonder cabinet aspect of the Wellcome’s curation, the objects themselves are fascinating, if difficult to find.  (For a fun starter search, type in “amulets” or “gas mask”  on the object page.  If you want to see the extensive chastity belts in the collection the search will yield no joy. Maybe it’s a work in progress.)

While trying to find the Art of Medicine on the 5th floor, I wandered into History of Medicine gallery on the seemingly secret 4th floor.  All the stairs to the 4th floor are roped off, and it seems only one of the numerous lifts go there. By the time you find it, you’ve left the sticky crowds of school children behind and start to wonder what the museum is hiding here.

I can heartily recommend finding it.  Why fork out £20 quid at the London Dungeon whilst being crowded by hoards of tourists when you can totally get vibed out for free at the History of Medicine dioramas?  I guarantee you that you will be alone whilst taking in the “Dentistry in the 1930s” wax tableau as well as the seen-better-days Modern Operating Room circa 1978 (just what are they doing to that poor wax sod?  Why is the blood transfusion bag all brown and crusty?).  Don’t forget the dimly lit amputation.  It’s hard to make out much beyond the tarred wax leg in the foreground.  And in the center of the floor: a cavernous Victorian sweet shop of a chemist, where the mustachioed wax man leans over the counter to help two wax girls with giant bows in their hair, his old timey jars and bottles obscured in shadow.

I should really mention the most soulful of the exhibits: the neolithic trepanning diorama.  Call me crazy, but those hirsute dudes look a lot more comforting than the wax doctors in the other exhibits.  (Insert need-a-hole-in-the-head joke here).

Palace of Pills from the Marketing Drugs to Doctors case
Palace of Pills from the "Marketing Drugs to Doctors" case

The exhibit’s timeline makes an unintentional argument.  Despite all the advances in modern medicine, the cures and curers are often no less terrifying than a caveman with a sharpened rock.

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