Cabinet of Curiosities

In Others
August 20, 2009

People, go to The Wellcome Collection. They have false eyeballs.

Perhaps, to be fair, you are not a false eyeball kind of person. In which case I should warn you that this is not the kind of museum where you should expect to, you know, learn anything. They have an exhibition about DNA and I am still no wiser about what all the ‘map of the human genome’ actually is. They have an exhibit about childbirth and I wouldn’t be able to tell you the different stages of cervical dilation.

I was expecting a Science Museum-style take on the human body and medicine. A demystification of the workings of the spleen, for example. A model of the different parts of the human eye with an explanation of the things that can go wrong with it. But The Wellcome Collection is more of a remystification, really. Henry Wellcome collected a bunch of really weird medical shit, and they have put it on display with beautiful tactile representations for the blind and occasional audio commentaries. Their idea is not for you to come out going “huh, who knew bile was so useful?” but rather to stand in the gallery going “good lord. Seriously. Good Lord.”

Here are some of the things Wellcome collected:

Yes, that is his own life-mask. Hairs from his moustache still adhere to it.

This must be left to speak for itself:

*Do you see what that rider is riding? Do you?*

It’s Graeco-Roman, you know. Probably more than 2,000 years old.

And here’s a Chinese torture chair! The seat is made of swords! I bet you know a small child who would love this place.

Alongside the weird medical stuff, they have commissioned artists to produce responses to the items in the collection. Some of these are more successful than others. I loved a piece by Daniel Lee which dramatised the evolution of (a very creepy) man from a coelocanth-like fish. I liked the towering shelf of ‘books of the human genome’ – although I still don’t know what it is. For the exhibit on obesity, though, one of the pieces was a figure whose entire face and body was covered by rippling fat. Not just fat. Blue-veined, ulcerous, peeling-skinned fat. Which… even in a medical museum dedicated to grotesquery seemed needlessly offensive. Being fat is not a creeping disease which will destroy your head. I realise it was artistic, symbolic, etc, but… it seemed more symbolic of the artist’s loathing of fatness than anything else. Which is not something I approve of.

Having got that off my chest, though, I must say the space is beautiful. There’s a lovely cafe, with wifi, they’re open late, there’s a library. All in all, somewhere I will definitely go back. But not, I think, totally alone after dark; if anywhere has exhibits that come to limping, shuffling, blind-groping life, this would be it.

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