Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: Visiting the Wellcome Collection

If you’ve ever got off at Euston Station in London, or been for a walk up Euston Road, you’ve probably walked past the Wellcome Collection (and the adjoining Wellcome Trust). I thought it was about time I visited, so a couple of weeks ago, I went with my partner. So what is the Wellcome Collection and where did it come from? The Wellcome Trust was founded by Sir Henry S. Wellcome who was an extensive, and enthusiastic traveller. Wellcome was somewhat of a collector, amassing a huge quantity of painting, books, instruments and other objects related to the historical development of medicine worldwide. For a while, there was nowhere to house the complete collection, with it bein split up and displayed in others (such as the Science Museum). This all changed in 2004, when the Wellcome Trust moved to their new offices, along with the adjoining space for the Collection. The Wellcome Collection wasn’t opened until 2007, allowing members of the public to learn more about their founder, the history of medicine, and to see some of the many objects that were collected.

The Wellcome Collection’s permanent exhibit is all about their founder, Sir Henry S. Wellcome

There are several galleries within the Collection, with only one permanent exhibition titled ‘Medicine Man’, which displays a number of artefacts collected by Sir Henry S. Wellcome. It only shows a small number of Wellcome’s collection, but it has diversity of its side. On display are everything from varying medical glassware, paintings depicting medical operations, archaic looking medical instruments, and other such curios. Wellcome started his collection at the best possible time, at the height of the British Empire, when money and objects flowed through the ports of the world, ultimately destined for London. It must have been an amazing time to be someone with as much wealth as Wellcome had, because what else would you spend your money on? You’d collect as much as you could, relating to a topic of your interest, which may ultimately lead to an obsession. That’s what I’d do at least.

A range of the glassware this is on display within ‘Medicine Man’

‘Being Human’ is the other permanent exhibition at the collection, which was first opened in 2019. It is an eye-opening look at the world of people living with various disabilities. It was designed with the helped of disabled artists and activists, which to me is certainly the right thing to do. The last thing you’d want is to exclude the people that you were trying to help, in terms education to the wider public. The Wellcome Collection states “Being Human explores what it means to be human in the 21st century with a focus on personal stories, and is split into four parts: genetics, minds & bodies, infection, and environmental breakdown.” The pieces on display include medical instruments, prosthetics, art, and other objects which help provide these messages. It’s always great to learn more about a topic which you often overlook, such as the effects of disabilities. As an able-bodied person, you often take your body for granted until it starts to go wrong. ‘Being Human’ helps to break down this mental barrier, providing a much-needed insight to the lives of people suffering from disabilities, as well as the advancement of technology that helps to improve their daily lives.

A view of ‘Being Human’, looking into the exhibition space

I didn’t think too highly of the other exhibition space, which were more art installations, than displaying the advances of medicine. Given we’re going through a global pandemic, it would have been nice to see an exhibit on the history of viruses, or vaccines. I’m sure that would draw people in, especially those that were on the fence about being vaccinated. What greeted us, was a display of photography of rainforests, with the sounds of them played as we walked around. It’s quite depressing to think that some people will only ever have this experience of nature, instead of seeing it, hearing it, and smelling it for themselves. The exhibit would have been more at home at the Natural History Museum, than the Wellcome Collection. This aside, my favourite objects were the two canes on display within ‘Medicine Man’, that once belonged to Charles Darwin (see below).

Look at the detail on Darwin’s walking sticks!

The Wellcome Collection is definitely worth checking out if you’re in London, and you’ve got an hour or so to kill (if COVID allows). It is quite small, and you can easily get around quickly, if it isn’t too busy. If you’re looking for something else to do afterwards, the Grant Museum of Zoology, is just around the corner!

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