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.

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.