Spanning centuries and continents, the Wellcome Collection of books and artefacts forms what is perhaps the ultimate cabinet of curiosities. Amassed by Henry Welcome, a renowned nineteenth-century pharmaceutical entrepreneur, philanthropist, and man of science for over four decades, the collection draws on an absolute fascination with the treatment of the human body and is hugely important as a source of research. The collection houses his extensive academic library, which is still being expanded today, and two permanent gallery spaces displaying his impressive catalogue of medical artefacts, and a selection of modern art works.
What makes this museum so special is that, rather than solely documenting the scientific practice of medicine, Wellcome was interested in the human understanding of how to treat the human body, and so the collection branches out into alchemy, ethnography and anthropology, delving into the strange depths of human activity. The main gallery space, entitled Medicine Man, displays a huge array of different items from death masks to amulets, torture chairs to chastity belts, spanning cultures from the Aztec and Egyptian to the Victorian and ancient Greek. The variety of artefacts on display is astounding and every case holds items of interest - often acting like a role-call for famous figures throughout history, including Charles Darwin's canes, Lord Nelson's razor and a lock from King George III's beard.
One of the great intrigues of this collection are the connections that can be observed between items that span such different eras and countries. The exhibition is categorised under general themes, such as Seeking Help and Treating Yourself, allowing the artefacts to form a kind of conversation with one another over certain topics. In one display case, End of Life, a guillotine blade used in the execution of French revolutionary Jean Baptise Carrier lies next to Victorian trinket brooches containing lockets of hair worn in mourning, which in turn lie next to a shrunken head and the death mask of Benjamin Disraeli. And the extreme ends of human nature can be observed in the section entitled Beginning of Life, where a torturous male anti-masturbation device - with teeth - is shown alongside Japanese tortoiseshell sex toys.
Wellcome's fascination with the human body extended to fine art, and the gallery contains paintings, prints and photographs gathered on the basis of what they represent, rather than their artistic merit. Paintings featuring depictions of mandrakes and a woman laying eggs make for a surreal exhibition, but also serve to point out the acts that we chose to recreate and represent, and the symbolic importance we place on the various acts of the body.
The second gallery space, Medicine Now, consists of modern day artworks that complement Wellcome's fascination with attitudes towards our bodies. Pieces on display include a thin, frontal slice of a whole human body, plasticised and preserved, on loan from the Body Worlds collection, matched with an entire bookshelf filled with large volumes in which the code for the human genome is written in tiny, close print. These works keep the spirit of the main collection by exposing the extremes of the human body, and our persistence in unravelling its meaning.
Wellcome's collections are outstanding in their variety: a testament to his passion for the pursuit of medical knowledge, and just plain fascinating. Whilst the artefacts on display certainly cover the deeply weird and unusual aspects of human nature, they also offer some insightful glimpses into our understanding of our own physicality.