SI SPENCER, OCTOBER 2017
THE WELLCOME COLLECTION describes itself as ‘The Free Destination for the Incurably Curious’ and once again it’s the brainchild of a Victorian philanthropist and obsessive collector, Henry Solomon Wellcome. Born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, Henry first started making money hawking invisible ink via mail order. Luckily nobody seemed to spot he was actually just peddling lemon juice and Henry parlayed up his earnings and began to invest in pharmaceuticals (his company later went on to become one of the founder members of multinational giants GlaxoSmithKline).
Moving to England, he pioneered two massive changes in the pharmacy industry; direct selling of product to doctors and more radically, the tablet (which he called the tabloid). Hard to imagine that such a simple thing was actually invented, but prior to 1880, medicine had always been sold as powders or potions – part of the Wellcome’s permanent collection illustrates quite how much we take such a simple thing for granted.
As was the fashion at the time, Henry spent a great deal of his time travelling the world and like Horniman before him, he collected obsessively. It seems Mrs Wellcome wasn’t quite as tolerant of her husband’s mania as Mrs H though – she was embroiled in two highly public affairs, one with department store magnate Harry Selfridge and later with author Somerset Maugham with whom she had a child and later married. None of this seemed to put a dent in Henry’s faith in human nature and on his death he left two great legacies – The Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest and most important biomedical research charities and The Wellcome Collection which began life as his personal accumulation of books, paintings and objects and has since extended into a vast collection and reference source exploring the relationship between medicine, culture and art…. ….and it’s that connection between the three subjects that makes the Wellcome such a joy of pop culture, kitsch, fun and downright weirdness.
Rather than present medicine and healthcare from a strictly scientific and technical perspective, the Wellcome looks at how we as ordinary people respond and react to it. From Mexican graffiti comic strips thanking saints for miracle cures to the importance of graphic design in health-warning pamphlets, from Incan medical teaching aids to Japanese paper statues attempting to explain the scientific process of how memory works, the Wellcome gathers the weird and wonderful moments where our lives intersect with science. It’s a truly wondrous place with plenty of bright interactive exhibits and icky body-stuff to keep kids entertained alongside the thought-provoking, jaw-dropping and inspiring exhibits for the grown ups.