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Wellcome home

Penny Ritchie Calder says the £30m London venue housing the remarkable range of artefacts amassed by Henry Wellcome is a fitting tribute to one of the world's most extraordinary collectors
Penny Ritchie Calder
'My plans exist in my mind like a jigsaw puzzle and gradually I shall be able to piece it together.'

Seventy years after his death, the grand plans of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome, pharmaceutical magnate and maverick collector, have been pieced together into a dazzling new shape.

A £30m refurbishment project has transformed the Wellcome building on London's Euston Road into a museum unlike any other in the world.

Like the man who inspired it, the new Wellcome Collection defies straightforward description. The nine-storey structure combines an art gallery, museum, library and events forum.

With an exceptional collection of artefacts at its core, it aims to explore the links between medicine, life and art, and to open up the subject of health and wellbeing to diverse audiences in the spirit that Wellcome had originally intended.

Wellcome himself is impossible to pigeonhole: entrepreneur, compulsive networker, philanthropist, archaeologist, pioneer of tropical medicine, patron of science, he was also one of the world's greatest collectors.

Born on a small farm in the American Midwest in 1853, he developed a taste for business when working in his uncle's drugstore. By the age of 16 he had already unveiled his first Wellcome product - invisible ink.

He trained as a pharmacist and came to London in 1880 to set up a pharmaceutical firm with a college friend, Silas Burroughs. The firm, Burroughs Wellcome & Co, flourished. When Burroughs died unexpectedly in 1895, Wellcome found himself the sole owner.

The company went from strength to strength and Wellcome became a naturalised British citizen. He moved in lofty circles and was knighted in 1932.

His personal life was less successful. His marriage to Syrie, daughter of the philanthropist Dr Thomas Barnardo, ended in divorce when she had a child by the writer Somerset Maugham.

Wellcome used the company profits to finance medical research, but also to fund his collecting interests. As a student he had begun to accumulate medical, cultural and anthropological items, and he now had the means to realise his dream of building up a collection 'for the purpose of demonstrating by means of objects… the actuality of every notable step in the evolution and progress from the first germ of life up to the fully developed man of today.'

He eventually hoped to create a Museum of Man that would 'connect the links in the chain of human experience which stretch back from the present time into the prehistoric period of the early ages' and would encourage the study of 'the continuous perils and ravages of disease encountered in the battle of life.'

He had first thought of setting up a museum in 1903, but his Historical Medical Museum on London's Wigmore Street did not open for another ten years. By 1932 the existing Wellcome building had been constructed to his specification to house part of his ever-expanding collection and his research laboratories.

Inspiration came from the great Victorian collector, Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers, who emphasised the significance of the ordinary object in understanding human history.

Wellcome bought everyday healthcare products from rag-and-bone dealers and pawn shops, but he also hunted down celebrity pieces, such as Nelson's razor and moccasins worn by Florence Nightingale, and the unusual, including shrunken heads, secured on his behalf by a network of overseas agents.

By his death in 1936 he had amassed over a million items, dating from almost every period and every culture worldwide. Some were one-offs with full provenance, while others were collected in bulk with little explanation of their history. It was in all senses an eclectic collection.

He bequeathed his fortune to establish the Wellcome Trust, now the largest charity in the UK. He also left his million objects - a key component of his unfinished jigsaw puzzle - to his unwitting successors.

The trustees were faced with the challenge of caring for this vast ungovernable collection. But their central mission was to fund medical research, not run a museum. With little curatorial expertise, they did their best while, as Ken Arnold, the head of public programmes at Wellcome, puts it, 'nobly failing to grasp the magnitude of Wellcome's vision'.

Realising that much of the collection was deteriorating in unsuitable stores, the trustees decided to distribute it to other institutions. Three-quarters of it would eventually be given away.

Objects went to 33 different UK institutions, from the Ulster Museum in Belfast to the Shoe Museum in Somerset, and to overseas museums in 24 countries, including Zimbabwe, New Zealand and India.

Today the story of this dispersal seems extraordinary. Initial small-scale distributions failed to solve the trustees' problems, so by 1954 they adopted a more drastic 'nearly everything must go' strategy. A photograph taken in 1955 shows a room at the British Museum filled to the brim with spears and shields.

This was one of many occasions on which crates full of Wellcome's artefacts would be unpacked and hastily laid out. Curators from around the UK would be invited to take away anything they liked. As the host, the British Museum was given first choice, but after that it was a free-for-all.

It conjures up images of an antiquarian version of a Harrods' sale, with curators emerging triumphant, clutching not bargain china but armfuls of ancient metal implements of uncertain origin.

Whatever the vagaries of the process, the end results were by and large judicious. In some cases it led to the creation of new museums.

The Egypt Centre at the University of Wales, Swansea, for example, is almost entirely based on objects from Wellcome's collection. Inside the 92 crates that arrived on the university's doorstep in 1971, staff found ancient relics still lying undisturbed in their original 1930s newspaper wrappings.

The Science Museum received nearly 120,000 items, many of which are on show or available for study. Transfers are still going on; the Manchester Museum recently received Etruscan, Roman and Greek bronzes to enhance its classical world displays.

Ken Arnold has perhaps a small sense of regret about what might have been: 'The grand overview of life and health provided by the amassed collection has largely been obscured by its curatorial and intellectual dispersal.

'His million objects were never the subject of intensive scientific research and now it is hard to grasp what, as a whole, they might have revealed.'

During the project planning process, the curatorial team have looked for ways to make sense of the intriguing chaos that is the residue of the collection. They have sought to adapt Wellcome's vision to make it relevant to a 21st-century audience.

The functional and well-designed galleries created in Hopkins Architects' remodelling of the original 1932 building accommodate the three exhibitions that form the heart of the visitor experience.

Half the 1,350 sq metre gallery space is taken up by two of them: Medicine Man, incorporating highlights from Wellcome's original collection, and Medicine Now, which covers more recent advances in science and medicine. The remaining space is a gallery that will host four temporary exhibitions a year.

The planning team was unable to benefit much from the advice of other museums specialising in the same subject area. Apart from the relatively unknown Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden, there are none.

But the team was able to draw on its own experience of mounting more than 20 exhibitions in the past decade on biomedical topics, in national museums and other venues.

Medicine Man is a fresh take on an exhibition held at the British Museum in 2003. Featuring more than 500 objects, including Charles Darwin's walking stick, Napoleon's toothbrush, amputation saws, Japanese sex aids and a Peruvian mummy, it is a true cabinet of curiosities.

Steve Cross, the co-curator of the exhibition with Arnold and Danielle Olsen, explains that when evaluating the original exhibition, the word 'weird' came up a lot.

This is understandable, as the collection is indeed weird, but the problem was that 'visitors had lost sight of the fact that the exhibition was about one man's unique personal collection, not a general display about the human body'.

The new exhibition remedies this with a full introduction to the colourful life of Wellcome. His multi-faceted character is perfectly illustrated by a leather wallet containing his eight calling cards, each one geared to a different persona. The showcases beyond contain a potent mix of the ordinary, the bizarre, and the ghoulish.

Arnold is used to fielding questions about the selection of these objects. 'Yes, Wellcome collected erotica and celebrity items, but it is a medical museum and we cannot ignore the fact that these items, like the rest of the collections, are to do with bodies, pain and death. The choice is not gratuitous. Careful thought went into it and it would have been unduly coy of us to have left certain material out.'

In the adjacent gallery, Medicine Now, also curated by Cross, looks at contemporary medical topics such as genomes, obesity and malaria through the eyes of scientists, artists and popular culture.

It considers the scientific developments that have taken place since Wellcome died, and reflects his ideas of how medical advances and lifestyles affect the human race.

He would have been overawed by the first-ever print-out of the human genome displayed in a huge bookcase - the 3.4 billion units of DNA code fill over 100 volumes, each 1,000 pages long, in type so small that it is virtually a blur.

And what of the Wellcome Collection's future? Independently funded and free from the burden of measuring up to national or local government targets, it can go its own way.

Its temporary exhibitions, beginning with the Heart - an exploration of the medical and cultural significance of this vital organ - will provide the focus for an ambitious line-up of public events. The aim is to attract 100,000 visitors a year.

Family groups will undoubtedly be part of the visitor profile, but as yet there is no education programme for schools. Some may see this as a major gap, though the logic behind it is interesting.

While many museums tie themselves in knots trying to fit into the national curriculum, the idea here is to open first and then see what the educational opportunities are. This may result in displays and activities that both children and adults will find refreshingly unpatronising.

The planning team is to embark on a robust programme of evaluation to help determine future policy, using surveys, peer review groups and media monitoring.

The one thing it will not be doing is collecting more crates of objects. Although the Wellcome Trust still adds to its library and occasionally commissions artists, it now only acquires objects specifically required for display.

Henry Wellcome might be disappointed that his successors are unable to share his passion for collecting, but he would probably be more than content with the way that his jigsaw puzzle has finally turned out.

Penny Ritchie Calder is a writer and consultant
Project data

Cost: £30m

Main funders: Wellcome Trust

Exhibition Design: Gitta Gschwendtner

Architect: Hopkins Architects

Main contractor: John Sisk & Son

Graphic design: Kerr|Noble

Exhibition build: Mivan

Exhibition cases: Rothstein Vitrinen

Audio interpretation: Just Radio

Audiovisual installation: DJ Willrich

Interactives: Ico Design

Consultancy: The Heart

Exhibition design: Coombe Architecture

Graphic design: Nick Bell Design

Exhibition construction: Qwerk

Lighting: VBK

Audiovisuals: Electrostage

Exhibition ends: 16 September

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