Tabloids and Snake Oil

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.

sm_wellcome.jpgHenry 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.

Henry Wellcome dressed as a Monk

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.

Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright

Anger fuels the city, the smouldering coals of Blake’s satanic mills are alive and well. Since the attempted carbomb attack on the Tiger Tiger nightclub on Haymarket, I’ve had Blake’s quatrain drumming in my head,

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Though this coincidence with Blake may have been lost on the bombers, it was not lost on me. Some days, London is full of fearful symmetries and awful dichotomies. Yesterday was such a day.

Two blanched-blonde chavs in pink track suits sit behind me on the bus. Their OG mannerisms borrowed from MTV, they listen to tinny hip hop mp3s on their mobiles and call me ginjah (or ginger) pointing to my red dreads with disgust. (It wasn’t until I moved here that I realized many Brits find red hair and freckles ugly and are unashamedly vocal about it– no doubt this is some leftover anti-Irish sentiment. For my American friends who don’t know what I’m talking about, see Catherine Tate’s hilariously illustrative “Ginger Oppression” skit.) The girls hissed at me as I left the bus, white girl respect your race. How is it they don’t realize their entire pose is a borrowed perversion of African American performative resistance?

Alighting in Picadilly, I find vandals got to Madame Pompadour— a dripping pink grimace sprayed over her.

Camilla and Kate convince me to go with them to check out the Damien Hirst show at the White Cube. Outside, people queue in the rain to see the skull, and across the street the gift shop sells tee shirts and posters sprinkled with (ethically sourced?) fairy dust. The guards wear what look like band tee shirts: a screen printed diamond with “hirst” in gothic letters across it. They don’t stop a child climbing on the bisected shark, and I like to think this is not out of laziness but instead knowing that this is ultimately what the thing was for– a morbid, toothy jungle gym. After all, isn’t Hirst the boy who pulled the wings off butterflies and showed you his dissections in the school yard? Now he’s just grown up and has a load of cash.

Walking between the shark sections did make me shudder with a zero at the bone feeling, and the black sheep impeccably stilled in its case terrified me, but all this emotional impact was lessened by the exceedingly bad paintings hung about the place: paint-by-numbers photorealism of his wife’s cesarean, and the garish pathology panels– hair and razor blades affixed to ink jet washes in inchoate art school fashion.

In one alcove a woman stands before the butterfly paintings— wings from tropical butterflies plastered to canvas. She wonders aloud, “where does he get them from?” Isn’t it obvious the whole show is snickering in the face of lifestyle politics and ethical sources— (White Cube’s press releases be damned)? In the other room, the climbing boy stands in front of the black sheep and asks, “Mummy, does he kill the animals himself?” And the mother, so confident in “culturing” her child by letting him climb on the vitrines, is stumped. After a pause she replies, “They are dead, darling.” In other words, don’t worry how they got that way.

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?

Later we went to see a screening of Sadie Bennings brilliant German Song and I got homesick. At least in America one is allowed a fertile innocence. But in London, that seems impossible. It was Gay Pride in Soho yesterday, and even with a bomb scare and torrential rain, people came out in carnival beads and metallic latex to drink in the streets with a joyless determination. Blitz spirit, innit? The special bomb units ran through the crowd, and one bumped into me, turned and apologized before running on. I thought– this would never happen in America– a massive street party right after a bomb scare? A policeman under duress saying sorry? For a moment, I was happy to be in such a proud, wildly civil place. I had no idea of the flaming SUV crashed in the airport in Glasgow.

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?