Medicine Man / Medicine Now
Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London
Rather than stick around at their newest exhibition – Miracles and Charms, which I found to be frankly rather uninspiring – on my recent visit to the Euston Road mega-structure that is the Wellcome Trust, I ventured upstairs to their longer term exhibition: the collection of one Henry Wellcome.
A tiny fraction of Henry Wellcome’s myriad objects are gathered in the first room, entitled Medicine Man. A dark, wood panelled space which feels more like a Dickensian reading room than a place for the proper classification of objects. Artefacts range from 18th century Italian obstetric models to the mummified remains of a Peruvian man, via guillotine blades and leper clappers (confused?). The theme of the unexpected continues with cupboard doors built into the walls, however the contents of these are somewhat of an anti-climax, containing not a ghoulish surprise but merely printed facts.
These objects represent the very Western ideal of gathering and possession; that in collecting a vast number of ordinary items, they become extraordinary and their owners have managed to freeze them in a moment in time, saving them from inevitable decay for perpetual study and wonderment.
Medicine Man plays on the universal trend of celebrating the past, both recreating the feel of a traditional collection and nodding towards the trend for eclectic ephemera sweeping interior design and fashion alike while staying just the right side of the marketing tool that is ‘vintage’. However the main problem with a collection such as this one is pin-pointing its aim. This isn’t to suggest that every exhibition should leave its viewers in a state of life-questioning awe, but I think that such an interesting collection of items could have had more of a narrative, be that historical, social or medical. Henry Wellcome’s lifetime of collecting is not given full justice by this static assortment of items.
Medicine Now, by contrast, is a bright, laboratory-like space exploring modern issues in medical science. Within its sterile walls are exhibits from all disciplines: artwork sits next to technical equipment, a wall of folders representing the human genome are steps away from a seat where you can pick up a telephone and listen to geneticist Steve Jones, a crackly phone line giving a pleasing sense of authenticity.
While similar to Medicine Man in its interdisciplinary approach to the subject matter, Medicine Now intentionally and successfully sets itself apart from its more traditional gallery neighbour to involve visitors in the experience. Rather than parade at a safe distance around artefacts in glass boxes, Medicine Now invites visitors to get up close and personal, be that pretending to be a scientist using a genetic sequencing machine or perusing a shelf of modern diet books. In line with the 21st century age of feedback, there’s even a wall for you to draw a picture based on anything contained in the gallery’s main themes of genomes, malaria, obesity and living with medical science.
As a comparative experience, Medicine Man and Medicine Now provide rich material for discussion. However as exhibitions themselves, the experience is not disappointing either. The curators at the Wellcome Trust have created two individual but complementary galleries demonstrating not just the past, present and future of medical science but also how we treat and view these artefacts and the ideas they represent.