Sunday, 26 February 2012

A touch tour of a touch piece at the Wellcome Collection: scrofula and tuberculosis

There are several events held at the Wellcome Library and as they tend to be booked out early you have to plan ahead to get a booking in a narrow window.  In a previous blog post I mentioned how much I had enjoyed my afternoon in the Wellcome Collection.  In the series of talks, an experiment has been undertaken in allowing the visually impaired to have a “sneak peek” at a mystery object which had been chosen with a speaker in mind.  The broadcaster Quentin Cooper from BBC Radio4 Material World conducts the gradual revelation with an expert on the subject.  In this case Dr Helen Bynum was scheduled to talk about Scrofula and a mystery object with Royal connections.  ( )

An hour before the talk we gathered at the desk in the foyer.  There is an accessible lift from the street level and given my crutch and cane combo, I took advantage of it.  Gemma and Catherine were there to show us around.  I had met Catherine twice before when she spoke to our local VI Group and I had turned up one day.  We had a tour of the library and the collection.  I had raved before about the life mask of Henry Wellcome (check post on Lord Kitchener and moustaches) and Henry was introduced to another visitor. 

The mystery object was there for us in the Welcome Library reading room and though it could not be touched directly, it was enclosed in a small protective case allowing it to be viewed.  I could make something of it. It is about the size of a £1 coin.  It is a Touch Piece and the rest of the story can be heard on a podcast which was made.  (I don’t think the podcast has been loaded yet, but no doubt it will be available soon! )

Queen Anne touch piece
(courtesy Wellcome Collection)

If you are accustomed to the style of Quentin Cooper he is notorious for dreadful puns to the extent that complaints have been made to BBCRadio4 Feedback.  I recently defended Material World over Home Planet in a Twitter forum discussing the demise of the latter.  It sounded that all the puns, including TB or not TB, were made. That is apart from “Consumption not be done with these dreadful puns.”

Being Scottish I had studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth at school and there is a reference in the play to the King’s Evil.  Scrofula is a tuberculosis infection which affects bones and skin, though the pulmonary TB is the better known type.  Scrofula has made something of a comeback with cases being reported in Africa and closer to home, sometimes but not always associated with HIV and AIDS. Issues such as Public Health, diseases and cures are part of the Wellcome staples and the areas of interest stretch into health policy, science, social policy and religion and ethics. I particularly enjoy the open minded staff who will take you round items on the collection. 

After the talk I spoke to Helen Bynum who was interested in how we got on in our preview.  The talk had mentioned the kings of France particularly the Capetian line or dynasty and I was back in the British Library exhibitions of illuminated manuscripts.  This exhibition covers English Royalty until the reign of Queen Elizabeth.  Touch Pieces were viewed with dubiety during the reformation period and the practice reached a peak with Henry VII until the restoration and Charles II doled them out.  During the joint reigns of William III and Mary II the practice had fallen out of fashion and was briefly revived during the reign of Queen Anne. The last of the Stuart monarchs though, through Elizabeth Stuart the line continued through the House of Hanover.

Wellcome also has a collection of medical sciences ephemera, books and their  histories.  Catherine is also interested in Ancient Greek and the classics and writers on philosophy.  In addition to meeting Henry Wellcome again, Catherine had taken us to a case with a Touch Piece from the time of Mary Tudor, who was the half sister of Elizabeth.  The Touch Piece of Dr Samuel Johnson is in the British Museum where I had been to the Grayson Perry show that featured quackery in one of the topics.  

At the end of the formal talk questions were asked and it turned out that the person next to me had a talking watch as well.  I had checked the time and she said “I’ve got one of these talking watches too” meanwhile someone just on the other side had mentioned that her husband had contracted Scrofula.  Coincidence or what?

Catherine arranged for me to obtain an image of the touch piece of the time of Queen Anne.  This is the only image used in the actual talk.  I double checked its authenticity.  I could make out the coin shape with a small hole so that the touch piece could be worn round the neck.  I cheekily asked Catherine how many touch pieces Henry Wellcome had collected.  Catherine has found 11 items which the magpie Henry collected, though there may well be more.  Catherine has sent me an image of a touch piece of the reign of King Henry VII.  All of a sudden I have found myself being immersed in medieval, Tudor and Stuart dynasties.  

Henry VII touch piece (high resolution)
(Credit: Science Museum via Wellcome Collection)

Many thanks to Catherine and Gemma for the arrangements.  It was an interesting way to let us have a bit of the jigsaw before the others.  It felt similar to my visit to the National Theatre where the Touch Tour beforehand had given us the opportunity to “see” things on stage which we would not have picked up in the audience.  It is all about access.   

Crestina Forcina from the Wellcome Trust has very kindly sent me a high resolution image of the Henry VII touch pieces.  For more information on their collection of images you can contact Crestina at the following addresses:

Crestina Forcina
Picture Researcher
Wellcome Trust
Euston Road
London NW1 2BE, UK

T +44 (0)20 7611 8598
F +44 (0)20 7611 8577

For my type of sight loss, I can make out more detail having these images on a laptop.  The size of the Queen Anne object is only about the size of a one pound coin, and being able to magnify the touch piece allows those with some vision to appreciate the object itself.

A calendar of events at the Wellcome can be found on: 
Note:  Dr Bynum has published numerous articles and books.  One related to this talk is:,amajnls&page=2

Also, an example of the Wellcome's Object of the Month series from the past can be found on their site on .  This was a Queen Anne loadstone, if you are curious!