Autumn 2007

Body of work (65)

Extraordinary content and sensitive design establishes the Wellcome Collection as one of London’s essential museum stops

By Rick Poynor

Published in Eye no. 65. vol. 17 (text in full)

Sir Henry Wellcome’s immense hoard of medical objects, containing an estimated one million items by the time he died in 1936, was one of the world’s great collections of historical and ethnographic curiosities. Today, many of the pieces are scattered among institutions of learning across the globe, though the core of the collection remains in the possession of the Wellcome Trust. In 2003, some of the strangest and most intriguing artefacts appeared in the exhibition ‘Medicine Man’ at the British Museum. Now, with the opening of the Wellcome Collection in Euston Road, London, 500 pieces can be viewed in a new permanent exhibition with the same title.

With perfect sensitivity to the subject matter, Gitta Gschwendtner’s exhibition design treats the project as a 21st-century Wunderkammer or cabinet of wonders. Walnut-panelled walls suggest an Edwardian interior, without resorting to unnecessarily literal pastiche, and the exhibits form enticing islands within the space. The designers have turned the main display cabinets, based on themes such as ‘Beginning of Life’ and ‘Treating Yourself’, against the axis to break up the narrow room’s rectilinear grid with a note of spatial eccentricity.

The style of display varies according to the nature of the objects. Amputation saws and obstetrical forceps line up on a tilted red background, while artificial limbs sprout from an angular red frame – De Stijl for robots – that is almost an exhibit in its own right. In the five major display cabinets, curators Ken Arnold, Steve Cross and Danielle Olsen lay out the objects in a simple rectangular formation. ‘Understanding the Body’, for instance, includes a plated metal nose, a German anatomical figure with removable parts made of wood, and a 4000-year-old skull from Jericho with holes bored in it. Equally arresting are the Japanese sex aids and the doctor’s signboard from China hung with hundreds of human teeth; this is also the place to see Napoleon’s toothbrush, Nelson’s razor and Darwin’s whalebone and ivory walking stick.

Frith Kerr and Amelia Noble’s graphic design binds the disparate displays together with great finesse. Kerr / Noble chose the Modernist typeface City Berthold for its associations with the period when Wellcome was collecting, and they render it three-dimensionally in walnut for the titles mounted on the glass cabinets. Such an incongruous marriage of transparent surface with visible woodgrain sounds like it could never work – but it does. In what may be the exhibition design’s masterstroke, longer captions that can easily clutter displays and turn viewing pleasure into a reading chore are hidden behind engraved walnut doors with white porcelain knobs in the wall. Opening these nifty cupboards, reminiscent of Sir John Soane’s Museum, adds to the sense of delving into a cabinet of wonders; viewers who want more than the basic details screen-printed on white labels next to the objects, made of Corian (often used for kitchen countertops), can find it easily enough. Again, there are variations to keep it interesting. In the cupboard next to the display of Etruscan votive offerings, Kerr / Noble offer a typographic diagram of the terracotta faces, ears, bladders and hands laid out in the shape of a body.

Drawers beneath the wall displays can be opened to activate spoken commentaries by experts and to access Braille captions and tactile reproductions of some objects, including the hand of a mummified figure from Peru.

With so many extraordinary objects to investigate and savour, it would be easy to overlook the walnut chest of drawers at one end full of drawings, photographs and prints, among them etchings by Goya and a savage cartoon by James Gillray from 1799 of a little black devil sinking its teeth into the inflamed foot of a man suffering from gout. Once again, their presentation in expansive white Corian frames shows great care for the quality of design detailing and finish.

Elements of the Wunderkammer approach can also be found in Gschwendtner and Kerr / Noble’s designs for Wellcome’s other permanent exhibition, ‘Medicine Now’. This, too, uses three-dimensional lettering, Nick Cooke’s Houschka, a humanist face with a quirkily rounded ‘A’ and ‘W’. The modern display’s dazzling white and red surfaces contrast seductively with the more sombre tones of ‘Medicine Man’, while forming an equally open and informal setting for displays about the body, malaria, obesity, patients, and genomes, as well as contemporary art with a medical theme by Michael Landy, Alexa Wright and other artists. At a stroke, Wellcome’s permanent galleries establish themselves as one of London’s essential museum stops, a clever, immaculately curated, endlessly stimulating fusion of science, art, public education and responsive design.