Thursday, 24 November 2011

Wellcome Collection: a mix of serendipity and discovery

UPDATE (29 November, 2011)

You can hear more about the mapping of the human genome in the BBC Radio 4 interview with Sir John Sulston (  This is an excellent interview with physicist Jim Al Khalili in the series The Life Scientific broadcast on 29 November 2011. Jim Al Khalili mentions Rutherford's statement that only physics was science and the rest was mere stamp collecting.  In this interview, Sir John admits to being both a chemist and a stamp collector!  Sulston is critical of the market driven project which was in competition with the open access sharing of data model which in the end has won out.  He points to the inadequacies of patenting everything as it emerges from the laboratory. 


I’d never been to the Wellcome Collection before, though I had a rough idea where it was.  It’s not far from UCH and Euston Square underground station.  I had used Euston Square station before but had always left on the north exit of Euston Road.  Two tourists from New Zealand kindly re-oriented me from the platform and they were quite pleased that I introduced them to the Wellcome Collection as one of them was going back to New Zealand to study medicine after completing her science degree. 

Catherine from the Wellcome Collection had spoken to our local visually impaired group and having passed round some tactile specimens, including a plastic brain, I was encouraged to make a solo trip.  On entering the Collection there is a guard, who offered an accessible lift in case I couldn’t use the stairs.  I was taken to the desk and Catherine was found by one of the tourists who had brought me in.  Catherine took me up the stairs of the building, which was completed in 1936 to house Henry Wellcome’s collection.  Wellcome was a magpie for collecting all sorts of medical ephemera and there is a range of artifacts from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The collection has relatively few captions for the exhibits and there are many informative staff who will discuss items of interest which you might have and also which they themselves enjoy.  It’s very non-proscriptive and as I met Kate and Lizzy (in common with all museums, the staff move around the building) during my two hours at the museum. 

Catherine started off with a work by John Isaacs entitled “I cannot help the way I feel” ( .  It is a talking point and challenges us to treat those with obesity as somehow less than human.  We then went to an artwork by Andrea Duncan titled “Twenty three pairs” ( )  This shows the imagery of using an odd sock drawer containing mismatched socks in twenty three pairs to represent a set of human chromosomes.  (DNA genetics, genome)  This encourages a debate on nature vs nurture.  I asked Catherine about the pairing of X and Y.  The final pair were in fact two Xs, so it was a woman! 

Also in this area is a collection of books in a bookcase with the letters “GCAT” – representing the four bases of DNA, adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).  Near the book of the genome is a robotic analyser which has been running more or less non-stop for 15 years.  The Collection then moves into some of the memorabilia of Henry Wellcome, including a portrait of him.  He has a remarkable moustache and there is a copy of a life mask of Henry Wellcome which can be touched.  I hit the nose first of all and then worked out the other features on his face.  There are several display cases with themes such as ‘the start of life’ and ‘the end of life’.  The end of life cases include reliquaries, and I was able to discuss my visit to the recent Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum and the Mony Musk reliquary on show in the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh.  There are also several vanitas exhibits - )  These were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries during great religious revivals. 

Many types of ethnographic samples of ritual, life and death artefacts are also assembled.  Apparently, one section is quite popular with those on a date.  Whether they were on a blind date is a moot point.  It’s certainly more interesting hearing mechanistic descriptions of the start of life artefacts than listening to some football commentary.  I couldn’t make out much of the detail of the various exhibits, but Kate and Lizzy were only too keen to answer questions of the “what’s this” type.  I remember passing a memorial to children who had died in infancy and a book which had been bound with human skin.  There are tactile exhibits, one of which is the face of a doctor of van Gogh.  This doctor had a pronounced forehead and on reaching to touch the tactile model, the forehead was the first item I sensed. 

There is also a collection of paintings and I was attracted to one of a nun and asked who it was.  It turned out to be the illegitimate daughter of Galileo and she had been packed off to a convent.  In addition, the Collection has copies of works such as those of Bosch.

After saying goodbye to Catherine, I went to the busy coffee shop and got some coffee and cake, with the staff finding me a sofa as the café is very busy and popular.  It may be something to do with UCH being adjacent and the exhibits on the first floor but I couldn’t help eavesdropping on two women talking quite loudly and with abandon regarding their exploits (one of them was Scottish and probably not much younger than me).  How delightfully uninhibiting this place is!  It appears you do not have to be visually impaired to cast off inhibitions.  There is a friendly bookshop next to the café and I bought some postcards, one of which is an advert for a Burroughs Wellcome product.  The bookshop staff are equally uninhibited as the postcard selection was explained to me.  I had been attracted by a blue postcard and it turned out to be for “Tabloid Laxative Vegetable”.

Prior to my visit, Catherine had emailed me some information about the Collection as follows:

Here is a link to the accessibility page on our website 

With regards to our events, please do check the website. Unfortunately our events are very popular and do book up fast however we do have a few drop in events that you can attend. We are unable to provide audio description along-side our events at the moment but please do check some of them out and see what you think.

Many thanks to Catherine, Kate and Lizzy for a wonderful afternoon (19 November 2011).  I think I will attend some of the science lunchtime talks.

Tip:  Euston Square underground station is useful for UCH and there is an underground walkway with lifts to the surface.  The underground station staff are very helpful and on my way back into the station, was taken to the platform.  We discussed tactile markings on the way to the platform and the staff member accompanying me was interested in my comments on platform to train access and the lack of step free access to the trains.