Words Kirk Truman
Photography Wellcome Trust
“My plans exist in my mind like a jigsaw puzzle…”
At the northern edge of Bloomsbury stands a remarkable building. Enter through the revolving doors of 183 Euston Road and you’ll find a place that unites the traditions of medicine and art and explores our history and future in all sorts of fascinating ways. Describing itself as “the free destination for the incurably curious”, Wellcome Collection offers visitors contemporary exhibitions and historic collections, and boasts plenty of surprises at every turn.
Wellcome Collection is part of the Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation dedicated to improving health on a global scale. The Trust, in its own words, “supports a range of bright minds in science, humanities and the social sciences as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine”. Upon his death in 1936, the Trust was established under the will of founder Sir Henry Wellcome. Today, it is the largest independent charitable foundation funding research into human and animal health in the world. The Trust has supported such transformative work as the sequencing and understanding of the human genome, and their research has established front-line drugs for malaria. The Trust’s broadly defined mission allows them to respond flexibly to medical needs and scientific opportunities. As well as tackling immediate priorities, their independence and long-term perspective enable them to back research that will benefit future generations. In short, think of Wellcome Collection (which is immediately next door to the Trust’s headquarters) as the showroom for the Trust’s endeavours globally – past, present and future – and a permanent exhibition exploring the human condition.
This all sounds amazing – so amazing that I have an incurably curious question of my own: how did one individual come to found an organisation such as this?
Henry Wellcome was born – a long way from Bloomsbury – in 1853 in the American Wild West. He developed an early interest in medicine and marketing, and the first product he advertised was ‘invisible ink’ (in fact, just plain lemon juice). He and his college friend Silas Burroughs left the US for Britain in 1880, setting up a pharmaceutical company called Burroughs Wellcome & Co. At this time, medicines were traditionally sold as powders or liquids, and Burroughs Wellcome & Co. were one of the first to introduce medicine in tablet form under the 1884 trademark ‘Tabloid’. Burroughs died in 1895, with Wellcome continuing to lead the company under his own name.
As Wellcome put it himself: “My plans exist in my mind like a jigsaw puzzle… and gradually I shall be able to piece it together.” And that he did. His multinational pharmaceutical company had begun to master modern techniques of advertising, such as promotion, image and branding, as well as establishing world-class medical research laboratories. At the same time, Wellcome used the wealth his company brought him to amass one of the world’s most impressive (and most eccentric) collections relating to medicine and health through the ages. Pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector, Henry Wellcome was undoubtedly one of the most fascinating men of his age, and received a knighthood before his death in 1936. By this time, the collection was greater in size and scope than those of many of Europe’s most famous museums.
With his ever-growing collection in mind, Wellcome had planned and constructed the Wellcome Building on Euston Road. Today, little about it has changed. There have been minor refurbishments in recent years, including the introduction of the world-renowned Wellcome Library and the addition of a rather expensive spiral staircase, but the building remains more or less as Henry envisioned it. His intention was to create not just a space to house his constantly developing collections, but one where professionals could come to learn more about the development of medicine and medical science.
Both aspects have proved successful, and probably beyond Henry’s wildest dreams. The Wellcome Collection opened to the general public in 2007, and now receives over 500,000 visitors every year. The Collection is divided into several spaces throughout the building, including the ‘Medicine Man’ section housing a permanent display of extraordinary objects from Henry Wellcome’s own personal collection. Another permanent fixture, ‘Medicine Now’, combines art, mixed media displays and exhibits to tell the story of modern medicine and the work of the Wellcome Trust since Henry’s death. This particular area features a postcard wall where visitors are encouraged to contribute drawings – I’ve seen contributions illustrating everything from genitals to unicorns!
Wellcome Collection also features a main exhibition space that plays host to a varying programme of events and exhibitions throughout the year, including work by Felicity Powell and Bobby Baker. In recent months, perhaps one of the most captivating exhibitions to date was displayed in the ground floor space – Tibet’s Secret Temple: Body, Mind and Meditation in Tantric Buddhism. The exhibition uncovered the mysteries of Tantric Buddhism and the rich history of its yogic and meditation practices. Taking its inspiration from a series of intricate murals that adorn the walls of the Lukhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet, the exhibition showcased over 120 outstanding objects from collections around the world that illuminate the secrets of the temple, once used exclusively by Tibet’s Dalai Lamas. A leisurely wander through the 12 rooms of the exhibition made for a calming and educational experience.
There’s another exhibition space on the first floor, which from October 2015 to January 2016 housed the first part of Wellcome Collection’s year-long exploration of human consciousness. Ann Veronica Janssens’ exhibition last year, entitled ‘yellowbbluepink’, made for a hot topic on Instagram. Her installation filled an entire gallery space with brightly coloured mist, exploring perception through the use of light and colour. Hues were caught in a state of suspension, defying the apparent immateriality of the medium and veiling any detail of surface or depth within the space. The second part, launched in February, is ‘States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness’. This major exhibition brings together artists, psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists to investigate the terrain between consciousness and unconsciousness, featuring historical material, objects, artworks and an evolving programme of contemporary art installations. The exhibition will run until 16th October this year.
When I first stumbled upon Wellcome Collection, I was shocked that this remarkable place was just moments from my home and yet had taken me so long to discover. Shock soon gave way to delight, though, as I began to explore the building’s many eccentric spaces. Its reading room has become my second home: it feels more like a meticulously designed sitting room, but one in which you can find yourself examining anything from a straitjacket to a vintage X-ray machine. The library is another space that captures the imagination of visitors – and makes for the perfect writing spot, incidentally. I’d certainly recommend you drop into Welcome Collection for yourself – one visit to this spectacular collection and you’ll probably, like me, find yourself feeling incurably curious.