Object of the month: Shrunken Heads (real and fake)

As part of our development project, the tsantsa (or, shrunken head) normally on display in Medicine Man is in storage. Our replica tsantsa, however, which forms part of our cross-gallery handling collection, can still be seen. This month Charlie Morgan delves into the history and controversy of this erstwhile cultural practice. N.b. although this series is called Object of the Month, real tsantsas are comprised of human remains and we in no way mean to dehumanise them.

Shrunken head, Shuar

Shrunken head, Shuar

At some point in the mid-16th century, Spanish Conquistadors entered the Amazon rainforest and came into contact with the Shuar people. In the epic colonisation of Latin America, one more indigenous group would not have made much of an impact if it had it not been for two factors: gold and tsantsas. To gain the former, the Spanish Empire tore up its initial peace agreements and subjugated the Shuar in a brutal mining system. In 1599, The Shuar – amongst other tribes – revolted against the Spanish, sacked their towns and – as the story goes – to satisfy the insatiable lust of the Spanish governor, poured molten gold down his throat. The area never again came under complete colonial control.

To obtain tsantsas, subsequent expansionists took a different approach. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, collectors would routinely arrive in the borderlands of Ecuador and Peru, laden with money, weapons or both, dead-set on exchange. Europeans and Americans might by that time have grown to fear the Shuar, but they were still utterly obsessed with shrunken heads.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

Despite that fact that tsantsas have only ever been produced by the Shuar people, it is often assumed that head shrinking was, and is, a globally ubiquitous phenomenon of indigenous groups: Papua New Guinea and parts of Africa being oft-ventured guesses. Yet aside from re-thinking our assumptions of where they might be made, it’s also important to consider the why.

The Spanish colonialists assumed the Shuar were a very warlike people’ because of the 1599 revolt and because they shrunk human heads – both, apparently, for no particular reason. However, while we now know the first was a legitimate act of anti-colonial resistance, we also know that the second was done for a very specific purpose.

Central to historic Shuar belief systems is an adherence to the idea of multiple, yet interlinking, souls, and one of the most powerful is the vengeful soul. Traditionally, if someone were to be killed in battle, the greatest fear of the murderer would be that the dead person’s soul could wreak havoc upon them from the afterlife; in order to prevent this happening the soul would have to be trapped. As the Shuar believed that the soul resides within the head, the best way to do this was to shrink it. Click here to read about the head shrinking process.

While head shrinking may be a unique trait of Shuar history, heads have been removed from foes in numerous places and in most cases they have been prominently displayed. At the Tower of London, heads of executed traitors were rammed onto spikes and in medieval Japan those removed by Samurai would be treated similarly. Not so with tsantsas.

Shrunken heads were produced to trap souls; once done, the soul had no way of escaping. The crucial part was not the end product but rather the process. As such, despite the fact that some heads would be paraded at feasts and hung up on display, others would be thrown away or even given to children to play with. In reality, a tsasnta only attained value as an object in itself when, akin to gold, it was integrated into the global networks of modern capitalism.

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Henry Wellcome obtained the shrunken head normally displayed in Medicine Man from the Stevens Auction Room in 1925. It cost £25 but it’s entirely possible that wasn’t just for the head: Stevens was well known to bundle objects together if he knew Wellcome was interested. He would then hike up the price as far as he could. How the head got to the auction in the first place we don’t know, but by the end of the 19th century the Euro-American lust for tsantsas was so extreme that more were being produced for trade than for the trapping of souls. Collectors would trade guns for heads and the guns would create heads to be traded for guns. For those that try to explain indigenous practice through colonial ideas of ‘modernity’ vs. ‘backwardness’, this is problematic because if head shrinking was a ‘backward’ practice it was far more escalated by ‘modernity’ than limited by it.

There is one final caveat. While the collecting of tsantsas was often very destructive it would be a mistake to see the Shuar as just passive victims. One aspect of the trade can be better explained by our replica tsantsa than by the real one. The shrunken head in our handling collection is made out of animal skin but is otherwise produced in exactly the same way that a human one would be (and looks remarkably similar). At the height of 19th century trade, wealthy collectors would often purchase tsantsas and put them on display, unaware that what they had been sold was made of animal skin. It’s estimated that this applies to 80% of all shrunken heads ever displayed. Like most objects in Wellcome Collection, the tsantsa tells more than one story.

Charlie is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: After Image

As we continue on our curious journey, most of Medicine Now remains open as (un)usual. Charlie Morgan takes a look at one of its objects on display, Alexa Wright’s photograph After Image, as April’s Object of the Month.

Alexa Wright, After Image, 1997

Alexa Wright, After Image, 1997

Most people reading this blog will have two arms and two legs. However, the average (here recall your school maths) may well be somewhere just below two of each. Losing a limb through accident or deliberate amputation is uncommon but it is certainly not rare. Taking surgical amputations as an example, five to six thousand operations are carried out in the UK every year – and, notably, about nine out of every ten of them will result in phantom limb syndrome.

A phantom limb is a slightly ghoulish term that’s used to refer to the sensation that an amputated limb is still there. The feelings that result range from mild tickling to intense pain. In Medicine Now a photograph by Alexa Wright shows a disfigured and odd-looking arm extending from just above the elbow of a seated woman, but the arm itself is not real; it’s the visualisation of a phantom limb. The woman (who did not attach her name to the photograph) was in a devastating car crash nine years before the photograph was taken and as a result had her left arm amputated. Like most amputees she subsequently suffered from phantom limb syndrome. Yet despite the discomfort and pain of this, she does give us a perhaps unexpected perspective: “I wasn’t born like this and obviously I do miss my arm, yet sometimes the phantom pain makes me feel whole again.”

Historically, work on phantom limbs has been hamstrung by a lack of knowledge of what causes them. The phenomenon was for a long time thought to be a psychological one, but scientists now suggest it may originate in the brain and spinal cord. My lack of scientific knowledge prevents me from delving too deeply into this and so I want to focus on a different side of the story: the way rehabilitation has been limited.

For years the solution to phantom limbs was thought to be medication, medication, medication; on the whole this had marginal results. Yet if you speak to a Visitor Experience Assistant in Medicine Now or if you are visiting when an object handling session is taking place you might well get the chance to see our mirror box. A mirror box is what you might call a Ronseal-type object – it is a box with a mirror stuck on the side.

For individuals with four limbs it can be used to demonstrate the disjunction that can occur between what the eyes see and what the brain experiences but for people with phantom limbs it can be a very effective form of pain relief. By essentially tricking the brain, the reflection of the one remaining arm or leg can be perceived as that which is missing and the body’s ‘need’ for its absent limb can be realised. Similar work can be done with prosthetic hands or virtual technology.

The photograph taken by Alexa Wright is one of a series of 24 and they can all be seen on her website. In each, you can see the individual with their missing arm or leg and also with their phantom limb. The photographs are humanising and shed some light on one of the many medical conundrums that we still have no complete answer to. Despite the grand narratives and concepts of medical science that we often defer to, the experience of the individual is still paramount.

 Charlie is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Future)

This is the last of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. If you have visited us over the past seven months you may have noticed that, although we are open as (un)usual, the building doesn’t quite look like itself. Our gorgeous neoclassic building is undergoing a few transformations to accommodate more exhibitions, events and visitors. The full unveiling will be this autumn and, to tide you over, Muriel Bailly talks us through what’s changing.

Our development project is being carried out by Stirling Prize-winning architects Wilkinson Eyre. We are increasing the space available to the public by transforming storage and office areas. Here is the architect’s vision for the building:

© Wilkinson Eyre Architects

© Wilkinson Eyre Architects

The first thing that probably caught your attention is the dramatic spiral staircase (highlighted green in the image above) starting on the ground floor and rising all the way up to level 2, leading directly to a new version of the library’s Reading Room and our new restaurant, Wellcome Kitchen. To those who enjoy our Wellcome Café, don’t worry: the café will be staying too. On level 1, our permanent collections Medicine Now and (the thoroughly missed) Medicine Man will fully reopen. They’ll have a slightly different layout but still contain all your favourite objects. The first floor will also welcome a brand new gallery space opposite Medicine Now, which will be an exhibition space allowing for year-long thematic shows. Our Youth Programme team, who work with local youth groups on some amazing creative responses to our collections, will have their very own studio on the first floor acting as their creative cauldron.

Here’s a sneak peek of what’s happening behind the scenes:

The entire development project will be finished by the end of autumn 2014 but different bits and pieces will reopen as they are completed. Some new spaces have already been finished and can be enjoyed by our visitors. For example, new spaces in the library were revealed to the public recently: a new staircase connecting levels 2 and 3 and a much larger rare materials room.

Wellcome Library Rare Material Room before/after ©Wellcome Library

Wellcome Library’s rare materials room before/after ©Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Collection Development Project is well underway. Here are some milestones to look forward to as work continues over the next few months. Please note that our timescales have to be quite loose in able to prepare for any minor delays that may occur.


  • Spring
    • Medicine Man will reopen, likely to be around mid-May
    • Exhibition gallery on the ground floor reopening for our Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Object exhibition in May
  • Summer
    • Restaurant on level 2 opens
  • Autumn
    • Youth Studio opening
    • new exhibition gallery on level 1 opens
    • Reading Room on level 2 opens

The development project is due to be complete at the start of October and everyone will be invited to come and explore all the new spaces.

For now though, just watch this space!

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Present)

This is the second of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the very building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. This is particularly fitting as today’s #MuseumWeek theme is about the buildings #BehindTheArt. Alyson Mercer looks at the post-Henry Wellcome era to chart the developments relating to Wellcome’s collection and examine how 183 Euston Road has evolved into the establishment it is today.

We last left our story with the death of Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936 and the Wellcome Foundation subsequently facing a restructure. It was decided in the year following Henry’s death that the budget was to be cut for Wellcome’s beloved Historical Medical Museum, with the newly established Wellcome trustees recommending that it focus solely on the history of medicine as opposed to the Museum of Mankind Wellcome had envisaged. Meanwhile, the Second World War had nearly arrived at the nation’s doorstep and the staff at the Wellcome Research Institute (as it was then known), worked indefatigably to prepare the museum for reopening alongside the magnificent Hall of Statuary.

The Wellcome Research Institution's building, Euston Road, London: the Hall of Statuary of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum as arranged in the 1930s

The Wellcome Research Institution’s building, Euston Road, London: the Hall of Statuary of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum as arranged in the 1930s

By 1939, work was complete on nine reconstructions of historic pharmacies which had been mounted as part of the proposed permanent exhibitions within the new remit of the museum (see image below). In the years that followed, large swathes of the area surrounding the building on Euston Road were bombed. The Wellcome Research Institute did not escape unscathed: nearby Gower Place was hit, resulting in the building and some artefacts sustaining damage. The Wellcome Research Institute building was structurally sound and was returned to its former glory following some repairs.

Looking through the Primitive Medicine Gallery of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1939.

Looking through the Primitive Medicine Gallery of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1939.

In 1946, the Wellcome Historical Medical Library was finally ready to be opened and readers were able to utilise a converted Hall of Statuary as a reading room. Not long after the Library had settled into its new location, the decision was taken to make 183 Euston Road into the official headquarters of Burroughs Wellcome & Co, forcing a nearly complete museum to be packed up once more and consigned to storage, this time at Portman Square. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Historical Medical Museum began to be reassembled in the building on Euston Road where it remained (in a reduced form) until the late 1970s. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, much of what continued to exist of Henry’s enormous object collection was transferred to the Science Museum in London, where it would form the basis of two permanent public galleries (first opened in 1980) and where the Wellcome Wing was later established in 2000.

The Reading Room in 1962.

The Reading Room in 1962.

Until the turn of the 21st century, various projects pulled the focus away from the exhibition of Wellcome’s collection on Euston Road. While the cataloguing of Henry’s numerous objects continued, as well as the mounting of several successful temporary exhibitions, the focus of the building was in large part influenced by the growth of the Wellcome Library. During the 1970s, a diploma in the history of medicine was established, as was a new collaboration with University College London to create a joint academic unit known as the Wellcome Institute.

In 2007, Wellcome Collection opened as a free destination for the incurably curious. Permanent galleries saw a small selection of around 300 objects from Henry Wellcome’s collection make up the Medicine Man exhibition, while the exploration of scientific innovation and advancement through the experiences of doctors, patients and contemporary artists formed the Medicine Now gallery. Along with a busy programme of temporary exhibitions hosted over the past 7 years and with the Wellcome Library busier than ever, 183 Euston Road has certainly come a long way from its rather inauspicious roots!

A group of schoolchildren in our Medicine Man gallery.

A group of schoolchildren in our Medicine Man gallery.

Alas, this institutional history really only tells part of the story of this magnificent building. We on the Visitor Services team have also been privy to viewing the very heart of human nature laid bare in our exhibition spaces since the museum was refurbished in 2007. We have watched couples endure rather painful public breakups and have also interrupted some rather amorous liaisons. We’ve heard tales of exam stress and have awoken people who may have simply found the content of our exhibitions a bit too stimulating (perhaps absorbing knowledge through osmosis?).

The curious public at Wellcome Collection.

The curious public at Wellcome Collection.

The folklore associated with a building of a relatively long historical standing is fundamentally acquired through an accumulation of tales over a number of years. If you haven’t been able to stop in to see us recently, do keep an eye on how Wellcome Collection is changing, and be sure to think of the hidden history of the building the next time you indulge in your incurably curious nature by paying us a visit.

The final Object of the Month instalment looks to the future as our building at 183 Euston Road undergoes a few transformations to accommodate more exhibitions, events and visitors.

Alyson Mercer is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the Month: 183 Euston Road (Past)

March’s Object of the Month could be said to be the biggest one so far, although it’s not really an object at all. This is the first of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the very building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. This is particularly fitting as today’s #MuseumWeek theme is about the buildings #BehindTheArt. Alyson Mercer examines the beginnings of the display of objects as an ensemble and the launch of Wellcome Collection’s home in our building on Euston Road.

The keen eyed amongst our loyal visitors will have noticed that the foundation stone for Wellcome Collection was laid on 25 November 1931. This is by no means the beginning of the story of how our collection came to be, but rather a turning point in the display of the Collection itself.

If you’ve recently visited us here at 183 Euston Road, you will have noticed that Wellcome Collection is changing. We often have visitors come in and share memories with our Visitor Services team of how the museum used to look, or ask to see exhibitions that are no longer on display. It’s fascinating to hear about the ways in which the building has played host to so many different people and objects over the past eight decades.

The display of Henry Wellcome’s collection (as a whole) relating to the history of medicine (as part of his lifelong ambition to create a museum of man) dates back to 1913. However, records show that Wellcome had previously displayed parts of his collection for the sole purpose of promoting his company. Through events like the ‘Annual Museum’, organised by the British Medical Association (BMA), and various trade exhibitions (including displays of artwork, decorative vases and allegorical sculpture to exude the desired theatrical effect for visitors to his trade display stand), Henry Wellcome and his staff were able to develop their expertise in creating popular, eye-catching exhibits over more than thirty years. They used a live sheep and a tank of living cod fish in the demonstration of lanolin soap and cod liver oil products at the 1896 annual meeting of the BMA. This type of exhibit at once achieved the desired effect of pleasing Wellcome himself, as well as drawing in and amazing an audience.

Burroughs Wellcome exhibit at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893. Wellcome, wearing a hat, is on the left.

Burroughs Wellcome exhibit at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893. Wellcome, wearing a hat, is on the left.

It was not until the Historical Medical Museum opened to coincide with the arrival of the International Medical Congress in London in June 1913 when Henry’s collection was able to shine on its own.  Located at 54a Wigmore Street West in what has been considered by some as London’s medical district, staff working for Wellcome devised a museum not intended for the public and limited admission only to those interested in the study of medical history.  “During the Congress, admission was restricted to members of the medical profession.  From 1914, members of the public were only admitted in organized groups or with a letter of introduction from a doctor, while women had to be accompanied by a medical man.” (An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World, F. Larson. 2009)

While the museum assisted in gaining Wellcome the academic credibility he worked so hard to achieve, he was not happy with the size or scope of his Wigmore Street establishment.  Determined to find a site more fitting of his growing collection and business notoriety during the 1920s, he settled upon a site in Euston Road which then contained the Bureau of Scientific Research and the Museum of Medical Science.  Both of these institutions were temporarily relocated and the site cleared to make way for the classical building designed by Septimus Warwick, which still stands today.

Wellcome Research Institute, 1932.

Wellcome Research Institute, 1932.

By 1932, the building works at 183 Euston Road were complete and while the Bureau of Scientific Research, the Chemical Research Laboratories and the Museum of Medical Science reoccupied the site, Wellcome’s own Historical Medical Museum was yet to relocate owing to a desire for Wellcome to rearrange its layout.  Unfortunately, Wellcome was never able to see the finished product of his decades of toil.  It was only four years after the Wellcome Research Institution was completed when its founder succumbed to bladder cancer.  Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome passed away on 25 July 1936 and his body was laid in state for several days in the auditorium of the institution he had worked so hard to create, and was watched over by some of the museum’s longest serving employees before his transfer to Golders Green Crematorium for an understated funeral service.

The next blog instalment will look at the post-Henry Wellcome era to chart the developments relating to Wellcome’s collection and examine how 183 Euston Road has evolved into the establishment it is today.

Alyson Mercer is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object(s) of the month: Origin and Fossil Necklace

Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Aside from sounding like the ramblings of a philosophy student at three in the morning these are the ever pertinent questions addressed by two artworks currently on display at Wellcome Collection. This month Charlie Morgan takes a look at how these objects may offer answers to those questions.

Regular visitors to Medicine Now will be familiar with Origin by Daniel Lee. The looped video shows an animated Coelacanth-type fish evolve through reptiles and primates into a modern human: the scales disappear, the tails get shorter and, eventually, the body stands upright. By using smooth linking manipulated photos as opposed to clunky still images we are able to experience evolution as a fluid process and not just as a series of isolated points throughout history. Four floors up and in our Foreign Bodies: Common Ground exhibition, another piece does something very similar.

Origin by Daniel Lee

Origin by Daniel Lee

Katie Paterson is an award-winning Scottish artist who for six months was in residence at the Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire. Here she became interested in genomic archaeology and after sourcing 170 different fossils (the oldest of which is a mere 3.5 billion years old) she had them carved into identically shaped beads and strung up on a necklace. The result is the first fashion accessory to document the history of life on earth and the first to ask the question “does my dinosaur stomach stone match my shoes?”

In Origin, the Coelacanth that starts the video emerged about 350-400 million years ago; in Fossil Necklace it would probably only appear about halfway down the right hand side. Fossil Necklace instead begins with the first single celled bacterial organisms to populate earth around 3.6 billion years ago. Since then, the earth and the living creatures that reside on it have developed, changed and evolved. As Katie Paterson notes, the only real links we have between them all is the DNA that the Sanger Institute studies and the fossils that she has collected.

Fossil Necklace by Katie Paterson

Fossil Necklace by Katie Paterson

While Fossil Necklace ends with the occurrence of written records approximately five thousand years ago, it also gives us a basis to pose questions about the future. Through Fossil Necklace we encounter five mass extinction events. These include the Late Devonian extinction which wiped out 75% of life on earth, but which was then topped by the aptly named ‘Great Dying’ and a whopping 95%. The most recent mass extinction was the most famous, the K/T extinction, which resulted in the death of the dinosaurs and a subsequent abundance of competing “whodunnit?” theories. 65 million years later and in an age of uncontested human dominance, a number of scientists are speculating a future – or, more accurately, an already underway – sixth extinction event: the Holocene extinction. We’ve already seen the death of the Dodo, the Auroch and the Mammoth to name but three amongst many, many others but it’s now estimated that “nearly 20,000 species of animals and plants around the globe are considered high risks for extinction in the wild”. How many of our present day creatures will soon just be fossils on a necklace?

Likewise Origin, by emphasising the various stages of human evolution (and as a result emphasising the ways in which those stages have adapted in order to survive), allows us to ask questions about what the future might hold for humanity. There is no shortage of theories; transhumanism anticipates a future merging of humanity with technology; a scientist has predicted we’ll soon be growing beaks; and one visitor to Foreign Bodies has suggested that the X-Men might be the most realistic prediction of future evolution. There is not much evidence to suggest humans are currently moving towards a new anatomical form or that we’ll soon be self-healing or shape shifting. Still, faced with constant fluctuations in the environment, climate and inhabitants of earth, both Fossil Necklace and Origin suggest we can be sure of one thing: something’s going to change.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and Foreign Bodies: Common Ground is on until 16th March.

Object of the month: Eat 22 (An interview with Ellie Harrison)

For one year and one day, commencing on her 22nd birthday on 11 March 2001 and ending on her 23rd, Ellie Harrison photographed everything that she ate. The resulting film and book entitled Eat 22 can currently be seen in Medicine Now. Nearly 12 years after the project was completed, Charlie Morgan spoke to her for Object of the Month.

Ellie Harrison, Eat 22

Ellie Harrison, Eat 22

Ellie Harrison has always been interested in food. When she created Eat 22 it was the first of a wider series of ‘data collecting’ projects in which she painstakingly recorded details of her own life. In 2006 Ellie officially quit data collecting and instead of looking inwards at herself began to use art to look out at “what was going on in wider political and social systems”. Yet despite this she is still drawn back to food as a subject matter. In 2009 she produced Vending Machine, a normal machine reprogrammed to only release crisps when news of the recession came up on the BBC News RSS feed. Through projects like this she is attempting to create a “direct link between wider economic and political events and our food supply” and to examine “the absurd consequences of the capitalist system” of which “the obesity epidemic is one and climate change is another”. It was in the context of this change in approach that I spoke to Ellie about her enduring interest in food.

Charlie Morgan: In Medicine Now, Eat 22 is in a section about obesity, and I know obesity and our relationship to food is something you are interested in now. At the time did you actually think about it in those terms?

Ellie Harrison: No I wasn’t really; it’s funny actually because when I came to the launch at the Wellcome Collection in 2007 I just found it hilarious that my piece of work was right behind the John Isaacs thing. I had never really thought about that piece in relation to obesity, I don’t know whether I took offence at the fact that it had been bunged in the obesity section, I might have done actually at the time! But now I think it makes perfect sense, and actually I’ve just made a film for a project I did called The Other Forecast in which I’m wearing a fat suit because I’m talking about increased rates of obesity.

CM: One thing that I always find interesting is that when people read through the book of Eat 22 they are in a sense just looking at pictures of you eating food, but they also quickly learn quite a lot about where you’re studying, where your family live, where you work and so forth. You produced the book in a sort of diary format but what were your thoughts behind providing that additional information, did you ever think that someone could look through it and piece together bits of your life?

EH: I just wanted to be as thorough as possible when I was doing it, but I guess I always have a sick fantasy that people might look it and piece together bits of my life! I think everybody has that same sick fantasy now; everybody’s publishing information online, everybody sort of hopes that people will be interested in the minutiae of their everyday lives. But I think I was really unconscious of all of that when I was doing it because I was so young and it’s only in hindsight that I’ve thought more about the process of making this private information public and why you would want to do that. I’ve thought about what it might mean perhaps in terms of an attempt for some sort of immortality through documenting something that will live on longer than you do, I mean that’s probably one of the reasons why a lot of artists make work.

I never knew it was going to end up in the Wellcome Collection and I never knew it was going to make the impact that it did. It just seemed to strike a chord with people all over the world who were able to identify with it and it really sort of snowballed in terms of the press coverage that it got. It’s quite weird thinking back on it now because I was a different person then and when I look back at my life, yeah, you can extract all of that information about what I was like then, but I guess I’m quite different now.

CM: You’ve said now you think of yourself as quite young when you produced Eat 22, do you think it was a product of your age?

EH: It was definitely a product of my age but also of technology. I was at university and I learnt how to do basic web design, and also digital cameras were just being released around then. I got one of the earliest digital cameras which was a 0.8 megapixel camera and it seems really backward now, but if it hadn’t have been for those developments in technology I don’t think it would have been possible.

At the time I was a student learning about the internet and it just seemed such an amazing tool for an artist. It was really liberating to be able to communicate directly with an audience in a way that just wasn’t possible before. As an artist working in a more traditional field your fate is in the hands of exhibition curators, critics and others who choose what to show, and I just saw the internet as an amazing tool to bypass all of that, a really democratic way of getting information out.

I was really inspired by that and had all of those things not come together at the same point in my life then it may not have happened.

CM: Just going back to something that you mentioned before when you spoke about the interest in Eat 22 snowballing, did you ever get replies from people doing the same sort of project?

EH: A little bit, on the website there’s a links page to other projects that were happening around the same time. I became aware of other people who were doing similar things and I remember corresponding with quite a lot of them. We had a sort of shared experience because it does have such an impact on your life. It did dramatically change my eating habits and I felt really restricted all the time because I couldn’t go anywhere without the camera. People ask me if I ever cared about what I would eat because it would look bad and that wasn’t ever a concern. It was more a concern with the amount of work involved in processing all the images: that was the biggest thing that was likely to deter me from eating. Everything I ate was more work!

CM: The concerns you had (or didn’t have) lead on to comments we often hear in Medicine Now. Sometimes when people visit the gallery and read Eat 22 they can be quite judgemental about what you eat: the amount you eat, whether or not they think it’s healthy. At the time did you ever become judgemental about yourself?

EH: I never really thought about that at all. I went into it thinking that I could produce a realistic picture of everything that I’d eaten, but it did end up changing what I ate. I think I did have a worse diet then than I have now: because I was a dirty student for half of it! I was eating Pot Noodles, I was eating ice creams and packets of crisps and I never really eat stuff like that now. I think I had a faster metabolism back then!

CM: With regards to eating habits – and this is probably the question we get asked the most in Medicine Now – to what extent did Eat 22 affect your eating habits after the project had finished?

EH: Afterwards, because it was such a novelty to be free and not to be being watched the whole time, I did eat more than I should have done. I think it probably takes about a year to recover, to just go back to normal and to remember what normal is. I wouldn’t recommend it as a diet!

It is useful for creating awareness of what you’re eating and nutritionists do recommend food diaries. But I was reading a blog post today about fad diets and how you can get really into them and they can really work for a short space of time but then there’s always going to be a backlash when you stop, and I think it would be unsustainable to try to attempt to do something like that for ever. It’s always going to end somewhere and there’s always going to be some sort of backlash.

CM: Finally, how did people around you react? Did you end up damaging any friendships as a result of the project?

EH: Not really because it didn’t really impact on other people’s lives in such a massive way. My friends and family took some of the photos but I developed a way of taking a lot of the photos myself.

CM: The original selfies.

EH: Yeah, the original selfies exactly. I discovered that if I turned a pint glass upside down and then I balanced the camera on top of the pint glass I could take a picture of myself on the timer very easily. I probably did a lot more than half of them that way, so I think for everybody else involved it still remained a relative novelty.

Ellie Harrison is currently running the Bring Back British Rail campaign and working on a number of artistic projects. She can be contacted through her website.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

What would Jesus eat?

For some, Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ; for others, it’s about eating as much food as possible. This month Charlie Morgan looks at a book that manages to combine both.

Angels serve Christ with food after his ordeal in the wilderness

Angels serve Christ with food after his ordeal in the wilderness

Among the many diet books in Medicine Now you can find one called Slim for Him. Often misconstrued as a 1950s ‘lose weight for your husband’ tract, the ‘Him’ of the title actually refers to God – and this is just one of a series of Christian diet books on display in the gallery. As the ever-expanding (no pun intended) weight loss industry collides with a history of religious dietary laws, publications such as God’s Answer to Fat and The Bible Diet (to name just two) are the inevitable result, but what do they actually say? More to the point, what can a religious diet offer that a secular one cannot? To find out, I decided to have a closer look at two of them.

Probably the most eye-catching Christian diet book in Medicine Now is the outrageously titled What Would Jesus Eat? The book starts with the proposition that ‘If you truly want to follow Jesus in every area of your life, you cannot ignore your eating habits,’ and as a Christian you would find it hard to disagree with that. It then proceeds to create a diet around what a historical Jesus Christ may have eaten at the start of the Common Era and, accordingly, the end result is far more archaeological than it is theological. Although recent studies have suggested that the Last Supper might have included delicacies such as grilled eels and orange slices, What Would Jesus Eat? sticks to a modern day ‘Mediterranean’ lifestyle and relies heavily on food such as pomegranates, fish and olive oil. Considering our traditional understandings of first century Galilean Jews, this is hardly surprising. Also unsurprising is the diet’s heavy reliance on bread.

Bread plays a large part in Christian doctrine, both literally and metaphorically. Jesus famously fed five thousand people with nothing but bread and fish, and modern Christians still regularly implore the Lord to ‘give us today our daily bread’. In What Would Jesus Eat? it’s a key foodstuff, and the author Don Colbert writes that not only did it have an ‘important role in the life and teachings of Jesus’ but also ‘Jesus knew that bread was the staple of man’s physical life’. Colbert is critical of some of today’s ‘baker’s loaves’ and suggests Jesus would have eaten something more similar to pitta bread, but overall he gives it positive coverage. When, however, we take a look at another book on display – God’s Diet – we begin to see an element of controversy.

God’s Diet is a very different book to What Would Jesus Eat? As opposed to taking its starting point as somewhere around the start of the Common Era, it goes much further back and bases its recommendations on which foods may or may not have been in the Garden of Eden. Clearly, this very problematic, but it immediately becomes more suspect when the author starts referring to the use of electric whisks and fridges – modern appliances that almost certainly would not have been in any sort of Garden of Eden. It also makes a number of historically incorrect assertions; for example, the book prominently claims that none of our ancestors ever died of clogged arteries, but recent excavations of mummies have revealed that they did indeed suffer from this exact ailment.

Returning to types of food, where God’s Diet notably differs from What Would Jesus Eat? is that it strictly prohibits the consumption of bread. The author states that ‘I bet [Adam and Eve] didn’t bake nicely crusted bread’ and on a list of ‘FOODS YOU CAN’T HAVE’ alongside candy, marshmallows and sweet pickles you can find, in capitalised letters, bread. In one quick move, bread has gone from being portrayed as a food that Jesus almost certainly ate (and so one that we definitely should) to one that Adam and Eve would never touch (and so one that we should also avoid). When one book asks ‘why not [follow Jesus] in our eating habits?’ and the other ‘why not eat just what God provided for us?’ yet neither can agree on where these intersect, the diet-conscious Christian is left in an awkward position.

Using just this one example, the upshot is that ultimately Christian diet books are as varied, confusing and dubious as their secular counterparts. Despite their apparent foundation in religious law, they appear to be much more a product of human desires than of divine rule. God’s Diet’s may continually repeat the mantra that ‘IF GOD DIDN’T MAKE IT, DON’T EAT IT’, but you have to wonder whether the author would still stick to this single rule if it could be somehow proven that Adam and Eve (and, of course, Lilith) ate Big Macs and Snickers Pie in the Garden of Eden. There is then little to suggest that those that live by Christian diet books are doing it for different reasons to those who adhere to Atkins or Cabbage Soup. Furthermore, there is even less to suggest that those writing them are basing them on anything other than widespread assumptions.

So our books might not reach the same conclusions on which diet works best but I think we can all agree that the holiday period really isn’t the time to be worrying about bread. Whatever Christmas means to you, make sure you enjoy some delicious food.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: The Transparent Woman

As part of our curious journey, Medicine Man is closed until spring 2014, but Medicine Now remains open as (un)usual. This month Jordan Blake takes a look at one of the standout pieces of the gallery and tells a story of war, scandal, horror and anatomy.

The Transparent Woman, Medicine Now

The Transparent Woman, Medicine Now

When you visit Wellcome Collection, you are immediately assaulted by a vast array of medical oddities, artistic wonders and scientific curiosities. One such curiosity continues to astound and educate the public like her predecessors did before and has become one of the key features of Medicine Now and Wellcome Collection. I am, of course, talking about our wonderful Transparent Woman.

Made in 1980, but restored in 2006, and currently on a long-term loan from the Deutsches-Hygiene-Museum (DHM) of Dresden, Germany, our Transparent Woman is very self-explanatory: a literal transparent female model that allows visitors to gaze upon the body’s internal arrangements of its organs, skeleton, circulatory system and nervous system. In Medicine Now, the Transparent Woman can be found standing at the same height as the average human woman with her arms outstretched towards the heavens. Found atop a white platform, you might almost think she was some sort of deity of learning. This is believable when you talk to the public, who press the buttons at her feet and watch with wonder and hushed whispers as the organs inside her light up in an array of colours, prompting people to check on themselves subconsciously while being encouraged to learn more and press another button. However popular she is, she is also the product of a past marred by dark intentions and the skewed machinations of mankind; a past that very few know about, a past that tells a story of redemption and new beginnings all over the planet… a past we shall now explore.

We begin our story in the late 1920s, in the city of Dresden. Europe is still recovering from the ravages of World War I, while the USA is suffering from the fallout of the Wall Street Crash. Germany is now known as the Weimar Republic and is suffering from crippling debts brought on by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, as well as constant political strife from both the left and the right. It was in this climate that the DHM decided it was the right time to create something revolutionary and extraordinary – a fully operable and working model of the human interior. Dubbed the Transparent Man, it sought to educate the public on the human body, by depicting “the human body as a machine: understandable, immaculate and, if well cared for, durable.” [1] It was done without the need for public autopsies or preserved organs and encouraged people to exercise and eat healthily. The Transparent Man was such a big hit that the DHM commissioned another to accompany him. This figure was female, and she was the direct ancestor of our own Transparent Woman. Made out of a plastic (cellon) body cast of a woman in her mid-20s, plastic organs, aluminium bones and electronic wiring, she caused something a sensation as there was now a naked ‘woman’ on constant display to the public. Yet when compared with her male counterpart, she was every bit as successful.

In 1929 the Great Depression was further compounding the dire situation within the Weimar Republic. The DHM survived this, but 1933 brought about the darkest chapter in the history of the Transparent Woman, when a vile but charismatic ex-soldier and painter from Austria ascended to the rank of Fuhrer of the Third Reich and transformed the nation into a military powerhouse. The DHM was gradually brought under the control of the Nazi state, which implemented new methods of classifying human beings. Despite such measures being ridiculous by modern standards, “they provided rationales for colonialist and racist suppression and, in Germany from 1933 to 1945, prepared the way for mass murder driven by racial ideology. The [DHM] fully embraced and publicly imparted the thinking of ‘eugenics’ before 1945.” [2] It was extremely upsetting that the DHM was being used in such a manner, but it would also soon become another casualty of war when most of its collections and stores were very badly damaged during the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1944. The Second World War ended in 1945 with the surrender and subsequent partition of Germany between the Allied powers of the UK, the USA, France and the Soviet Union. Despite becoming part of East Germany, the DHM continued to manufacture transparent figures until the reunification with West Germany in 1989–1990.

The Transparent Woman, Medicine Now

The Transparent Woman, Medicine Now

It was a good four years before employees of the DHM were able to make their way to West Germany, but some did – in particular, “Franz Tschackert and his son, who were medical artists and technicians…In 1949, they succeeded in establishing workshops in Cologne (British Zone) for a new Health Museum for Western Germany.” [3] This museum was formerly the Deutsches Gesundheits Museum, but it is now the Köln Krankenhaus Museum. One of their first productions was a Transparent Woman known as ‘Juno’.

Arriving at the now-defunct Cleveland Health Museum in the USA via London in 1950, costing US$15 000 (about US$125 000 today) and being one of the first constructions in West Germany, Juno was a big success. After arriving, her first public appearance occurred on 13 November, at the Museum’s 10th Anniversary Civic Luncheon. [4] Taking pride of place in the museum, a local Cleveland housewife, a Mrs Chris Gordon, was chosen to voice the new piece. Launched just in time for the museum’s tenth anniversary, the figure was a hit, delighting adults and children alike while encouraging them to discuss the body. A contest was held in the Cleveland Press to come up with a name for the new attraction: “other classical names submitted were ‘Electra’ and ‘Daphne’…‘Claire d’Illume’, ‘Translucy’, ‘Visibella’, ‘Lucid Lil’, ‘Muttering Myrtle’ and ‘Luminous Lu’…‘Cassie, the Lassie with the Glassy Chassis’.” [5] The winner was eventually ‘Juno’, named after the Roman goddess of women and the equivalent of Hera. She took pride of place in the Cleveland Health Museum until 2007 (by then it was known as Cleveland Healthspace) when the museum was closed. Nonetheless, Juno found a new home in the Health Education Classroom of the neighbouring Cleveland Museum of Natural History. She continues to delight visitors, and figures show she had over 2 million visitors by her 40th anniversary in 1990.

Another West German Transparent Woman found its way to Australia in 1954. On arrival, “one customs official was so offended by the nature of the exhibit that she almost never made it into the country.” [6] Eventually, the figure, destined for the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, went on public display at the Victoria State Theatre in Sydney, as a result of both of the public demand to see such a piece of technology and the museum lacking the necessary funds until 1954. Men and women were not only segregated but nurses were on hand when women visited, in case anyone fainted in shock of seeing the figure! Over the years though, the general shock subsided and by the mid-1970s, both trained medical staff and museum staff were using the ‘woman’ to teach health issues and sex education.

Even though the days of Nazism and Communism are gone from Germany, our own Transparent Woman can still be perceived as controversial. She was made in the twilight years of East Germany, a mere nine years before the collapse of the state. She serves as a reminder of the darker days when she was used to promote totalitarian ideals that strike horror and disgust into people whenever they read about the atrocities and actions committed in the names of Nazism. Despite this, she has developed into a powerful learning tool, one that the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney summed up in its launch booklet in 1954 – “THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN provides us with the means towards a greater understanding of ourselves – so necessary to our well-being and healthy living. There is a great difference between just being alive and being alive and healthy. It is the responsibility of the individual to keep his body healthy so that he may live a useful and successful life.” [7]

She has definitely proven herself to be one of the most interesting and mysterious objects within Wellcome Collection and without her, Medicine Now would not be the same.

I wish to give thanks to Wellcome Collection, the Powerhouse Museum of Sydney, Australia, the German Hygiene Museum of Dresden, Germany and the Archives of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, USA for all of their help, expertise and knowledge into researching the different forms and models of the Transparent Woman and her turbulent history.

[3] Takacs, G. Juno, The Transparent Woman: Background Information. Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, USA: 15th January 1989, page 4.

[4] Takacs, G. Juno, The Transparent Woman: Background Information. Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, USA: 15th January 1989, page 3.

[5] Martin, D. Juno: Symbol of all Women. The Board of Trustees of the Cleveland Health Museum, Cleveland, USA: 1952, page 7.

[6] www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=244414 – accessed 7 September 2013.

[7] The Transparent Woman. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, Australia: 1950-1954.

Object of the month: Acts of Faith

As part of our curious journeyMedicine Man is closed and will reopen in spring 2014. Medicine Now remains open as (un)usual. This month, Natalie Coe treads a path between the two galleries and explores the historical and contemporary faith we place in medicine.

Acts of Faith by Julian Walker

‘Acts of Faith’ by Julian Walker

Museums are well versed in the importance of objects, but those interested in medicine also know how powerful ‘things’ can be. This is especially evident in our Medicine Man gallery, which houses Henry Wellcome’s collection of weird, mundane and wonderful objects used by people to address their health concerns – from amulets containing umbilical cords to forceps and from amputation saws to Yoruba Ibeji figures.

Next door, and available to visit, is our Medicine Now gallery, which is inspired by the broad perspective on medicine that Henry Wellcome had. Few of its pieces link as explicitly to Henry’s collection as ‘Acts of Faith’ by artist Julian Walker, a piece that reminds us that we still rely on objects to make us feel better. On first glance, ‘Acts of Faith’ appears to be made out of teeth, tiny bits of bone or stones, but on closer inspection you might find the word ‘Rennies’. This gives a clue as to what it’s really made from, those very familiar objects we turn to when we are ill or in pain – 1452 pills! They are all everyday over-the-counter tablets and capsules: multivitamins, aspirin, decongestants, supermarket paracetamol, Boots’ indigestion tablets and so on.

You can also decipher the shapes that the pills have been carved into: hands, hearts, intestines, eyes and many other body parts all laid out as a body map. For example, facial features at the top, intestines in the middle and hands either side. Pertinently, ‘Rennies’ can be seen on what looks like a stomach.

Votive uterus

Votive uterus

Similarly, there are carved representations of body parts laid out like a body map in the Medicine Man gallery. These 4th-2nd century BCE terracotta versions are votive offerings, of which Henry Wellcome collected about 500. Votives like these were left at healing sanctuaries and religious sites as offerings to gods such as Asclepius, the Greco-Roman god of medicine. They were used to invoke a god, saint or spirit to come and cure that particular body part, or to give thanks for having already done so. These votives fit into a broader concept of ‘sympathetic magic’, the premise that we should treat like with like or fight fire with fire. You therefore need a sympathetic representation of the health problem in order to cure it, whether that be a terracotta body part, a mole’s claws for cramp or a Sri Lankan Sanni disease mask that allows the shaman to become a disease-causing demon. This idea is also present in modern homeopathy and in vaccinations, where you receive a small dose of the disease or virus you are trying to protect yourself against.

The votives in Henry’s collection were found in the bottom of a pool in what is now Tuscany, but offerings in a broader sense have existed in many different places in many eras. Medicine Man has some 19th-century Italian ex-voto (‘from a vow’) paintings that were used to thank saints for miracles in a similar way. And in 2011, Wellcome Collection held a whole exhibition on Mexican votive paintings, ‘milagritos’ and amulets from 19th-century London.

But what do these votives tell us? First, they are a great way of informing us about what people worried about, what they knew about the body and what they did about it. The numerous representations of reproductive organs, for example, indicate the centrality of concerns about fertility and the risks of childbirth. Second, they demonstrate the importance of belief in healing and medicine.

So Julian Walker based his ‘Acts of Faith’ piece on this idea of votive body parts by using pills, the contemporary equivalent of an object in which we can place our faith for a cure. Although there is scientific evidence for the efficacy of most of the pills in this piece, the majority of people will have very limited knowledge of that research or the biochemical effects of taking these pills. Walker is therefore suggesting that it is an ‘act of faith’ every time we turn to modern medicine. This is part of a wider statement about the faith we put in doctors, medicine and even science in general, despite not being experts ourselves. Arguably, this is an important part of our overall recovery, as documented by the well-known research on placebos and the positive impact of a reassuring GP. This brings to mind Voltaire’s irreverent quotation that “the art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease”.

Pills are an especially interesting aspect of this as they represent a societal tendency to expect a magic bullet cure for many health problems or a quick fix for pain (e.g. ‘fast-acting pain relief’). The very term ‘painkillers’ implies that pills can completely eradicate pain, when they are typically advised as part of a broader treatment plan. Accordingly, the pills in Walker’s piece are arranged in straight, orderly and evenly spaced lines, comparable to the gathered ranks of an army. It as if these inanimate objects are ready to fight our pain battle for us – reminiscent of the conflict-based language used in painkiller adverts, the media and everyday conversation, whether talking about ‘battling’ germs or ‘fighting’ cancer. Understandably, there has been some controversy about whether it is helpful for patients to talk about their experience in these terms. Interestingly, talk of bacteria and illness as an ‘unwanted intruder’ invading the body is comparable to the way users of the Sri Lankan Sanni disease mask might refer to a disease-causing demon.

Acts of Faith by Julian Walker

Acts of Faith by Julian Walker

The size of the pills echo other amulets and perhaps adds to their potency and talismanic quality; it’s as if their power is more concentrated by being so small. Julian Walker often uses small mundane objects in his work, as can be seen on his website. He describes the pills in this piece as having an ‘individual, precious or jewel like quality’ which reflect the intimate process of individually carving them. This in turn draws our attention to the importance of making our healthcare system more intimate, personal and holistic instead of focusing on specific parts of the body as Western medicine and, paradoxically, votive body parts tend to do.

This understanding of the role of faith in medicine does not undermine the importance of effective medication; Walker’s work lies in poignant contrast to the counterfeit malaria tablets previously on display in the gallery. This reminds us of the difficulty of getting hold of affordable, effective treatment in countries that experience high levels of malaria while people in the UK can get 15p paracetamol from the supermarket. Just as high levels of counterfeit malarial drugs can worsen resistance levels, so too can the over-prescribing of pills in the UK, namely the widespread concern about antibiotics.

The mass availability and consumption of pills highlighted in ‘Acts of Faith’ is interesting in light of the diet pills on display in the Medicine Now gallery. Conceptually, diet pills are a form of consumption being posed as a solution to another type of consumption. In this way, pills are part of the ‘commodification of healing’, particularly if we only ‘consume’ medication or treatment instead of actively participating in the healing process. As Walker puts it, we are “delegating responsibility for the process of healing and maintaining health” and therefore “elevating the manufactured item to the status of the physician” in the way people have always sought help in external things, whether they are objects, technology, gods, shamans or doctors.

Hospitals are increasingly recognising the role of religious, spiritual and personal beliefs in patients’ wellbeing, as evidenced by an increase in the number of multi-faith quiet rooms and NHS-funded homeopathic centres. That faith can operate in a medical environment is clear from the number of prayer requests in a hospital chapel. Research shows this includes prayers from those who would not otherwise engage in the practice. Indeed, it’s also been found that the most common overall cause for prayer is health related. However, it is a different kind of faith that Walker’s ‘Acts of Faith’ refers to, not faith alongside medicine but faith in medicine itself.

Natalie Coe is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection