Words & Illustrations Sophie Pelissier
It is often worth reminding ourselves that, as Londoners, we are lucky to have some of the world’s oldest and most important museums at our feet. We have the opportunities to know everything about anything, and have never been so spoiled for big blockbuster exhibitions. However, sometimes it’s all too easy to drift through a museum and feel that we are learning simply by dutifully observing what is put in front of us. How much of what we see really puts us outside our comfort zone?
The Wellcome Collection, overlooking six lanes of noisy traffic opposite Euston station, challenges this traditional approach to exhibitions by catching its visitors off-guard. As a free-thinking museum dedicated to making connections between medicine, life and art, it pushes us to question what it is to be human. And in doing so, it offers an experience that is two-fold; not only are we learning new things, but hopefully we might leave with a new perspective on ourselves. Wellcome’s mantra is therefore simple: it’s “a free destination for the incurably curious”, and an open mind is all you need to bring along with you.
These are not the dry, historical exhibitions of school trips, but presentations that bring together the bizarre and the unexpected. Take ‘Making Nature’, the museum’s first exhibition celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, which is also part of a larger study of our relationship with the natural world. Tracing our ancient attempts to ‘organise’ nature and how we have genetically manipulated it in the 21st century, it also challenges us, and our preconceptions, along the way. When reading about the history of zoos and circuses, we become aware of visitors in the next-door room behind a two-way screen. Interesting, too, to note the effect of taxidermy: how do we respond to a naturalistic tableau of fox cubs at play, compared to the fox lying on the floor nearby, with no pretence made at concealing death? Most arresting of all is the footage of a tiger as it paces forlornly through an empty house: is this the ‘Tiger Who Came to Tea’, Blake’s ‘Tyger, Tyger’, or something more sinister? Overall, the approach is so smart and subtle that you don’t even realise they’re doing it, but the exhibition’s organisers show us how our response to nature has evolved not only through the exhibits, but through our own behaviour.
By taking on big topics such as ‘Making Nature’, the Wellcome Collection inevitably turns our attention to modern problems of our own making – poaching and habitat loss, our weakness for fur or obsession with the #pugsofinstagram hashtag. The Collection does this equally well in its second temporary exhibition too. In ‘Electricity: The Spark of Life’, the final room leaves the question of sustainable energy hanging in the air, a perturbing afterthought to the model of the world’s first bespoke eco-city being built in Abu Dhabi.
This all feeds back into the Wellcome ethos: that great ideas in science and medicine can change people’s lives all over the world. As part of the Wellcome Trust, the charitable foundation aimed at improving global health, the Wellcome Collection was originally conceived by the 19th century pharmacist turned philanthropist Henry Wellcome. An eccentric who amassed one of the world’s most impressive collections of medical and health-related objects, he housed his treasures in the current building on Euston Road for the benefit of the science and medical communities. Henry Wellcome’s legacy is at the heart of all the exhibitions: eccentric ideas and artefacts that nonetheless highlight the importance of scientific research and developments in modern medicine.
The Wellcome Collection, then, is a place founded on big ambitions, one of which is the aim of creating a dynamic and engaging place of learning open to the wider public. Visiting on a Saturday, I encountered the usual weekend crowd of young families, teenagers louche and day visitors from out of London, but not all of them had come solely for the exhibitions. A ‘Saturday Studio’ for 14-19 year olds hosts creative workshops making films or podcasts. Public talks and events featuring scientists, researchers and professionals run throughout the week, many of them in support of this year’s special study of the natural world, and all of them for free, of course. The renowned library upstairs attracts the academic community from nearby University College London, but more of a surprise is the adjoining Reading Room. Described as ‘a new type of gallery’, this extension to the library is an interactive space where the public can probe a little deeper in to what it means to be human. Amongst the collection of books, objects and contemporary artworks, visitors can work, read, spontaneously get involved in pop-up talks or even host their own.
All of this is representative of the impressive achievements of Wellcome’s first 10 years. There has already been a £17.5 million re-development in 2012, to accommodate the unexpected footfall of 500,000 curious visitors a year. One senses that the Wellcome Collection still has much to offer us, especially in this special anniversary year of 2017. So if you have never bothered to ponder the meaning of life before, then there’s never been a better time. You have until June to see footage of Parisians in 1900 excitedly hopping on and off the world’s first electric sidewalk in ‘Electricity: The Spark of Life’. Go along in the first week of May to the ‘Re-making Nature’ weekend with your own objects and ideas, which will be used in the forthcoming ‘Museum of Modern Nature’ exhibition. Then, in the autumn, why not learn about the surprising life-saving powers of graphic design, or ancient healing traditions in India? And don’t worry if you forget to arrive with questions: the guys at Wellcome will make sure you leave with plenty of them.