Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries opened last November to rave reviews for their object-rich design, show-stopping art commissions and humanising take on medicine. “Just … wow” was one headline for the “biggest and most ambitious project the Science Museum Group has undertaken in decades”.
The £24m permanent galleries are a must-see, but not just for their scale and ambition. Their decade in development has taken place alongside a transformation in medical curatorship. Museum displays can often be narrow, technology-focused timelines, centred on the changing tools of the medical trades, but they are now increasingly being reworked to show the art, photography, film, faith and personal testimony of illness, difference and health alongside the technology.
It’s not that traditional medical timelines don’t hold important and astonishing stories, but the medical profession has been a singularly dominant voice, so a shift to embed multiple perspectives is essential to any new interrogation.
The Science Museum has not held back from this challenge of “breathing humanity into a pretty technical collection”, as one member of the team put it. Nor has it been at the expense of the famous names and stories of medicine held in its collections.
As a topic, medicine was introduced to Science Museum visitors 40 years ago, following the permanent loan of “the strangest museum in the world” – the pharmaceutical philanthropist Henry Wellcome’s vast and eclectic medical collections from the Wellcome Trust in 1976.
Anyone missing the original 1980s galleries with their unnerving mannequins and painstaking dioramas can visit them virtually at Google Views. Meanwhile, the new ones have ot banished re-creation – you can still wander inside Mr Gibson’s splendid Victorian pharmacy, but it now comprises a soundscape, props and superb interactive digital projection.
Art meets medicine
At the entrance to the galleries you are met by a golden giant – the artist Marc Quinn’s 3.5 metre-high bronze sculpture, Self-Conscious Gene. The physical production of medicine’s new colossus is itself a fascinating story, beautifully told here.
The portrayal of the artist Rick Genest, otherwise known as “Zombie Boy”, is compelling, with his exposed skin covered by anatomical tattoos, death motifs and crawling insects. And these mortality-concerned inkings bring us back to the exploration of life, death and our own bodies present in the room.
The commissioning of contemporary art on a grand scale in this scientific space has thoughtful brilliance. A second bronze sculpture at the opposite end of the gallery is Eleanor Crook’s Santa Medicina, an allegorical figure of medicine that presides over the galleries with scissors and scalpel. Look for the severed and stitched finger among the sculpted medical iconography covering this surgeon saint.
Other carefully placed artworks have impact, too. The artist Tabitha Moses’ Investment: Tabitha’s Gown is a hand-embroidered hospital gown, which narrates her experiences of infertility. Many of the artefacts themselves have escapist qualities – like the glorious 1930s miniature hospital model, which rewards close inspection of its tiny wards.
There are 3,000 objects newly selected, conserved and displayed here from a collection of more than 140,000 – from Joseph Lister’s microscope and Dorothy Hodgkin’s molecular model of penicillin to a beaded Sioux baby carrier and a “merman” from Java – which have been expertly curated across the 3,000 square metres of galleries. This is a multidisciplinary achievement in balancing the physical, ethical and interpretative demands of a world-class medical collection.
Few human remains are displayed. Natasha McEnroe, the keeper of medicine at the Science Museum, says they are not a strength of the collection and that “objects are only here if they powerfully tell a story that couldn’t be told otherwise”.
A 600-year-old skeleton showing evidence of a Danish woman living with leprosy does just this.
Personal stories are as prominent as star artefacts through the contemporary lifesize portraits of photographer Sian Davies. Many have three-word self-descriptions of their subjects: “actor, father, friend”, Jamie shares observations on growing up with physical difference. Sharon, “parent, playful, tenacious”, speaks about living with the neurological condition ME and Isabella, aged 13, memorably describes using her 3D-printed arm.
Every story and portrait is thought-provoking and transformative, the result of years of relationship-building with individuals by the museum. The galleries have been built to entertain and inform for an ambitious 25 years. Themes are selected to be relatable and to retain relevance over time.
The interactives and games go a long way in this – my favourite was a virtual gastroscope where you control the tube as it goes down the throat into the stomach. In a realistic touch, the screen constantly fogs so you need to clean the lens.
The galleries’ design creates the necessary changes of pace, tone and texture in a vast space. From text that has been hand-stitched onto panels to soften the clinical feel in the surgery section, to bursts of colour and creativity in the background graphic illustrations, the interpretation uses a range of creative ways to engage visitors visually.
The curatorial team took inspiration from multiple sources, including the Wellcome Collection’s programmes, medical museums in the UK and international venues, such as the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, Leiden, and Museum het Dolhuys, Haarlem, both in the Netherlands, and the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité.
A giant black cube in the central Exploring Medicine gallery shows off the breadth of the collection with a cabinet of curiosities. Mostly unlabelled, it creates a visually intriguing break between the two interactive, storytelling spaces – glass eyeballs, death masks and Mirena coils compete for attention.
By all means visit just to hold the hand of the golden giant, but I’d recommend spending time with the hundreds of concise captions describing a myriad of complex scientific procedures and health developments over centuries as well as the people who have created them.
Visitors are given spectacle and entertainment, but the quieter achievement here is taking the technical language of medicine and delivering a human story of “hope as well as heartbreak”. Individually, each caption is a model of clarity. Cumulatively, like the galleries and collection, they are an extraordinary accomplishment.
Emma Shepley is a freelance curator
Ove Arup & Partners
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