Childhood memories are sacred things. An abiding fixation of my formative years relates to weekend visits to the upper echelons of the Science Museum and to the Wellcome collection that still today resides in some semblance there.
One object out of all the treasures in that collection became a vivid obsession for me – a shrunken head. This object of such complete wonder, such allure is now housed in the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road in London in their ‘Medicine Man’ gallery. It is now presented in all its wonder alongside other artifacts from all corners of the globe that were amassed by the great medical curiosity collector Henry Wellcome.
Henry Wellcome was a man of many parts: entrepreneur, philanthropist, patron of science and pioneer of aerial photography. He also created one of the world’s great museums: a vast stockpile of evidence about our universal interest in health and the body.
More than 150 years after his birth in 1853, this exhibition reunites a cross-section of extraordinary objects from his collection, ranging from diagnostic dolls to Japanese sex aids, and from Napoleon’s toothbrush to George III’s hair. It also provides a very different perspective on some of our own obsessions with medicine and health.
In ‘Medicine Man’ some objects are gathered by type and others by broad cross-cultural themes. Objects that can to some represent the grotesque and repellant are shown to be fascinating reflections of the culture they were products of. What is clear to me even all those years ago with my nose pressed to the glass display case of the shrunken head is that beauty can be found in places far from where you would expect, and while I still want a shrunken head of my own I will content myself with visits to this fine gallery for now!
For those wanting to know more about the Wellcome collection Frances Larson’s An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World is a fine insight into the mind of the man behind it all.