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.

Putting the art into “tart”: Live Twitter Q&A

One of the most exciting #MuseumWeek themes is #AskTheCurator. Stephen Lowther, the Wellcome Library’s Ephemera curator, will be joining us for a live Twitter Q&A Friday 28 March to answer questions about the Library’s notorious collection of ‘tart cards’ – those naughty calling cards found in telephone boxes. Submit questions in advance below or join us on Twitter on Friday 12.00-13.00 GMT to ask your questions live.  Here’s a bit of background about the collection from Stephen to get you started.

Among the various collections in the Wellcome Library, the printed medical ephemera collection aims to complement the more academic and mainstream collections of books, journals, archives, prints and paintings. By ‘ephemera’ we mean anything published as a standalone single sheet, whether informative, educational, functional or advertising.

We have many works on sex, gender, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, sexuality, sexual problems and sexual psychology. In 1991, the Wellcome Library (on the Euston Road) was in the middle of London’s sex trade (King’s Cross, Baker Street, Mayfair) and local telephone boxes housed an ever-changing selection of photocopied, coloured cards advertising prostitutes’ services. It made sense that we preserve some of these for posterity, building up a chronological document telling the story of what was being offered and who was offering it, as well as the evolving design and reproduction of the cards themselves. The ephemera collection now houses about 4,500 cards (from 1991 to the present day) in 20 box files.

A selection of the cards from the collection.

A selection of the cards from the collection.

Design changed from borrowed, photocopied and hand-drawn images with dry transfer Letraset type through to the full colour, digitally produced cards that appear today. The first colour ones we have appeared as one-offs in 1992, with colour becoming standard by late 1996. Black on day-glo card was popular in 1993. Desktop publishing arrived in the 1990s and photocopying moved to print in about 1994. Nipples in photographs were blocked out by coloured stars (so as not to offend public decency, one assumes) until 2012, when the first nipples began to appear.

Trends are quite apparent. For instance: transsexual prostitutes appear from about 1999; and ethnic-minority prostitution increases (possibly reflecting trafficking of young women, which became much more common after about 1999, although Asian and black women were apparent from the start of our collection). There are students (paying their way through college?), and teams of two or three young women advertising “lesbian” sex (2007). Interestingly only four men feature in the collection (West End Luke, Naughty Jason, Man-to-Man Dave and Man-to-Man Grant), around 1994, the men preferring to advertise in the back of the weekly gay free press at the time.

A selection of the cards from the collection.

A selection of the cards from the collection.

Staple services included ordinary sex (“Roses are red, violets are blue, St. Valentine’s coming and so may you” – February 1992), oral sex (Miss Deep Throat), electrocution (“Get a BUZZ at Madame Electrique’s”), ‘schoolgirls’ (“Naughty schoolgirls want some fun, dress me up and spank my bum”), spanking, whipping (“No school dinners here, only lashings of discipline CORRECTLY GIVEN”), domination (“human doormat required” and the Venus Man Trap), bondage, cross-dressing (“Femininity found”), “rubber rumpus with Madame Sin” and Naughty Sammy Nipples.

The landline numbers advertised were cut off and replaced with others (and others…), but the mobile phone crept in and is now standard on all cards. The business is also shifting online as phone boxes become less commonplace. Cards advertising websites (e.g. “girlsinthebox.com”) appeared about in 2009.

One of the hand-drawn varieties of card.

One of the hand-drawn varieties of card.

The cards have become part of London’s colourful social landscape. Tourists take photographs of them (as well as taking a few cards as souvenirs), children have actively collected them and swapped them in the playgrounds (like Pokemon cards, only you didn’t pay for these). Westminster Council has passed laws outlawing them and despite officials going round removing them on a daily basis the cards still appear with relentless regularity.

A full history can be found in Caroline Archer’s successful book ‘Tart Cards’ (West New York, NJ: Mark Batty, 2003).

Any questions? Join us on Twitter on Friday 12.00-13.00 GMT to ask your questions live or leave a comment below.

Stephen Lowther is an Assistant Librarian (Cataloguing) and Ephemera curator at the Wellcome Library. To see the full collection, just join the library. Check out the Wellcome Library blog for more articles about the resources and information available.

#MuseumWeek 2014

Next week we will be joining loads of other museums and galleries across Europe to take part in Twitter’s #MuseumWeek (Monday 24 to Sunday 30 March). Each day will have its own theme, hashtag and activities. From #DayInTheLife on Monday to #MuseumSelfies on Saturday and #GetCreative on Sunday.

Monday

Monday 24 March is a #DayInTheLife. We follow Exhibitions Coordinator Luke Curral as he travels to Paris to see what he gets up to.

Tuesday

This is all about testing your knowledge of Wellcome Collection as we pose a series of riddles and quizzes about mystery objects from our Medicine Now gallery on Tuesday 25 March. Who will be #MuseumMastermind?

Wednesday

We invite you to share your #MuseumMemories and tell us why you love museums on Wednesday 26 March.

Thursday

On Thursday 27 March we’ll be sharing blog posts, information and images about the history and future of the Wellcome Collection building as we go #BehindTheArt.

Friday

Stephen Lowther from Wellcome Library joins us between 12.00 and 13.00 on Friday 28 March to take part in a live Q&A about the library’s fascinating ‘tart card’ collection as you #AskTheCurator.

Saturday

Saturday 29 March sees the return of the popular Culture Themes topic of #MuseumSelfie. We would love to see some of your selfies if you’re visiting Wellcome Collection on the day itself or if you’ve taken some previously. Share them with us on Twitter or Instagram and be sure to follow the hashtag to see everyone else’s selfies across Europe. Here are a few in case you need some inspiration.

Sunday

On Sunday 30 March we want you to #GetCreative. We’re looking for creative responses inspired by Wellcome Collection within the constraints of Twitter, in the form of prose, plays, poetry and puns. The way you approach this is entirely up to you; the only rule is that you do so using Twitter’s 140 characters to limit your output (but not your creativity!). Whether it’s a 140 character poem or a play spread across five tweets, it’s up to you. I wonder if Wellcome Collection’s fans are as inventive as other museums’…

Dust off your Twitter profile and prepare to tweet like you’ve never tweeted before!

Games research workshop with Matt Locke

Last month, Matt Locke from Storythings hosted an insightful workshop on his research methodology and findings for an evaluation of a selection of Wellcome Collection’s recent games. Chris Chapman tells us more.

Working alongside James Melly and Silvia Novak, the team have been analysing six of our games using their Attention, Behaviour and Circulation (ABC) framework. The results have helped us to understand how well our games have reached people and how players have engaged with each game.

Listen to Matt’s presentation:

Following the discussion, and using the ABC approach, we wanted to allow attendees to brainstorm their own game ideas. Each table was therefore provided with three cards, each with a particular Attention, Behaviour or Circulation scenario written on the back. Teams were then asked to create game ideas based on their cards. Also provided was the option of a ‘Joker’ card, featuring a specific game genre to narrow down the characteristics of their game.

Game cards

Example game cards

The cards provided a useful exercise in motivating people to think about game attributes and the attention patterns that drive people to play games, whether for learning, socialising or entertainment.

Have a go yourself – download a printable pdf of the game cards:

Let us know if you find them useful and what game ideas you come up with.

Chris Chapman is a Multimedia Producer at Wellcome Collection.

#CuriousConversations with illustrator Rob Bidder

Our #CuriousConversations have been generating funny and bizarre responses from you and every week they are illustrated by the talented Rob Bidder. We’ve seen the results but now Rob talks us through the process from start to finish. 

#CuriousConversations

As part of the development project at Wellcome Collection, a temporary wall had to be erected between the permanent galleries. We wanted this wall to be used in an interactive way so decided that each week we would start a conversation with our visitors, both in the gallery and online (via Twitter and Facebook). The idea is as follows.

  1. We ask a question. For example: “what do you want to happen to your body after you die?”
  2. You respond. For example: “I want my body to be covered in breadcrumbs and pecked apart by sparrows.”
  3. Some of the responses are turned into a drawing on the large whiteboard on the temporary wall and shared online.

I took on the role of illustrator with both enthusiasm and nervousness. Drawing “live” in the gallery was a slightly daunting thought. I hadn’t really worked on a large scale like this since university (where I had made large banners of Easter Eggs – it’s a long story) but I thought the discipline would help my drawing abilities. I was right: I found it difficult to know what scale to draw everything at first and I’ve had to draw things (such as Robocop and a Lamborghini) that I would probably never have drawn in my own practice.

#CuriousConversations

Every Wednesday I check the responses on Twitter and in the gallery to see what kind of answers people are giving and note down my favourites. Sometimes I can’t fathom how to render great answers; sometimes the ones that seem easiest to draw are not the most inspiring. The ones that usually make it into the final drawing are interesting or surprising in themselves; I feel I can riff off those responses or use them in a silly pun. I struggle to know how daft to be. I’ve been trying for weeks to fit in something about how the Twitter logo looks a bit like the logo for Birdseye and that, perhaps, the hash symbol is in fact a frozen potato waffle!

Once I’ve chosen my favourites, I make rough sketches (sometimes using Google image search to draw the few things I can’t conjure up from memory). This either makes me feel confident for the next day or it makes me feel uneasy about how it will turn out.

On Thursday I have two hours to draw. I try to clean the previous week’s picture off at some point before as it takes about half an hour and feels like a motivational workout before drawing. I’ve never been to a gym, but I imagine this must be how people feel when doing a heavy bench-press before going home to watch telly. The drawing itself is usually fun; sometimes visitors chat to me while I’m working, which I like.

#CuriousConversations

Probably the best part of doing Curious Conversations is seeing how people interact with it, both online and in the gallery. I feel like I’m getting to know the personalities of the repeat contributors on Twitter. In my daily role as a Visitor Services Assistant, I can be in the Medicine Now gallery and watch the visitors’ reactions to the drawing without them knowing it was me who drew it. It’s a good way of gauging honest reactions: I know if I’ve done an ok job if people come away smiling.

Rob drawing in the gallery.

Rob is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can join in with our #CuriousConversations by following us on Twitter and Facebook as well as commenting in person in the Medicine Now Gallery.

Perspectives: I can’t help the way I feel

We are fascinated by the photographs our visitors take of the objects and spaces within Wellcome Collection. Thanks to Instagram, we can not only see what’s eye catching but also how people view us and our material. Charlie Morgan and Russell Dornan explore one of the most photographed objects with a little help from the public.

Wellcome Collection Instagram

Visitors who enter our gallery Medicine Now are unlikely to miss I can’t help the way I feel.  The John Isaacs artwork is by far the biggest object in the space, but is also the most eye-catching. Initial responses regularly range from shock to horror and are often followed by an assumption that this must either be based upon a real person or instead be a warning of what could happen if obesity were left unchecked. However, the name of the piece indicates that Isaacs is putting across a far more nuanced point.

In the first case this could never be a real person. The wax sculpture may be in human form but it lacks arms, genitalia and a head: the last of which any human being would need to survive. But the lack of these parts also strips the figure of all identifying features and any kind of individuality. All that remains is an ever expanding mass of tumorous fat. As such, far from being a realistic representation of what someone could be, the piece is instead a depiction of how people could, and do, feel. I can’t help the way I feel reflects what Isaacs calls the ‘emotional landscape’ of someone who might glance in the mirror and see themselves in a certain way when in reality they look nothing of the sort. So it’s a piece about obesity, but it’s equally a piece about anorexia and about body dysmorphia; it’s about the personal implications of a society obsessed with an ‘obesity epidemic’ and with body image.

A selection of photographs taken by the public and uploaded to Instagram of the John Isaacs sculpture "I can't help the way I feel". Click through to see the full gallery.

A selection of photographs taken by the public and uploaded to Instagram of the John Isaacs sculpture “I can’t help the way I feel”. Click through to see the full gallery.

Of course, it’s also an outstanding work of art and a fantastic photo opportunity for Wellcome Collection visitors; it is one of our most photographed objects. Since the sculpture challenges its viewers to see things in new ways it lends itself to being scrutinised from many angles. En masse photos of the same object may force you to notice small details, look harder and generally see it differently. The photographs above are all from Instagram courtesy of the curious public. Click on the image to see the gallery in full and witness the different perspectives (as well as many similar ones) offered by visitors to the gallery. Next time you’re in Medicine Now why not take one yourself? Remember to tag it #WellcomeCollection or #wayIfeel if sharing on Instagram or Twitter and let us know how it makes you feel.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection.

See Wellcome Collection’s new Instagram account.