Foolish Remedies: Bloodletting

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicks off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

People have always been fascinated by illness and disease, whether out of self-interest, general curiosity or morbid preoccupation. It’s interesting to look at how people in the past dealt with various afflictions and how effective (or not) they were. Looking back, some make more sense than others and then there are those that really make you wonder…

The first object from the collection to illustrate this is the scarificator and bleeding bowl. They are used for bloodletting and can usually be seen in our Medicine Man gallery. Bloodletting is the practice of making a small incision in someone’s veins to let the excess of blood out (not arteries: the patient would bleed do death within seconds).

An English Scarificator with six lancets.

An English Scarificator with six lancets.

Can someone have “excess” blood? If you believe in the theory of the four humours, or humorism, then yes. Ancient Greeks and Romans mapped their understanding of human health and the body on their understanding of the universe. For them the harmony in the universe was maintained by the right balance of the four elements (air, water, fire and earth) and the four seasons (hot, dry, cold and wet). Similarly, good health was ensured by the right balance of the four humours, or body fluids, within our body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.

In the 2nd century AD, when Galen discovered that arteries carried blood, as opposed to air (as it was believed until then), there developed a need to “purge” the excess of blood previously not accounted for. From that moment, the practice became very popular and remained so until the 19th century.

During the 1800s, the practice of bloodletting was extremely fashionable in Europe, particularly in the UK, where people in good health were bled as regularly as they went to the market. It was considered a preventive action to boost your health, not dissimilar to drinking fresh orange juice or a yogurt type drink every morning today.

Another popular method of bloodletting was to use leeches. By 1830 France imported about 40 million leeches every year for medical purposes and in 1840 England imported 6 million leeches from France alone for the same purpose. The practice lost favour in the 19th century when doctors and researchers started questioning what the actual beneficial effects of bloodletting were. However, other inefficient and harmful treatments were still available, such as potions and tonics.

Pharmacy leech jar.

Pharmacy leech jar.

Today, bloodletting (or phlebotomy) is still practiced to cure specific illnesses such as haemochromatosis (iron overload) and polycythemia (high blood volume).

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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.

Back to basics

Skeletons exhibition at Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Images

Skeletons exhibition at Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Images

Last year at a conference in Copenhagen, Wellcome Collection’s Head of Public Programmes Ken Arnold and Director of Copenhagen’s Medical Museion Thomas Söderqvist proposed a new way of looking at science exhibitions. This month, Museums Journal published their manifesto in full, and with their permission we reproduce it here on the blog.

You can find out more on the Medical Museion’s excellent Biomedicine on Display blog, but more importantly, we’d like to know what you think. Is this a vision for the future? Is this how you would like to experience exhibitions at Wellcome Collection and elsewhere? Use the comments below, or let us know on our Facebook page or via Twitter.

Just over 15 years ago, Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg spearheaded Dogme 95, a manifesto to purify the art of film-making.

The aim was to engage audiences more profoundly and make sure they weren’t distracted by over-production. The Dogme manifesto ruled out special effects, post-production changes and other tricks in order to focus on the story and the performances.

Since then, writers, theatre directors and other arts practitioners have all found inspiration in Dogme 95’s back-to-basics philosophy. Dogme has been criticised, as have some of the films made according to its rules, but as exhibition producers, this classic vow of chastity has inspired us as a way of guiding and sharpening the creative practice of making science, technology and medicine exhibitions.

These rules have been written and published with almost indecent speed. They are deliberately provocative prompts for further discussion. This manifesto is not a definitive set of working proposals, but a draft, which will no doubt be modified and sharpened through challenge and feedback.

And anyone who knows the institutions we are based at will be aware that the exhibitions we have presided over have often not followed one or more of these rules.

This manifesto is almost reference-free, but this does not mean we think the ideas are purely our own. There are vast bodies of literature on science communication, exhibition making, art history and museology; we have read some of this literature and been influenced by it. We also have learned much from the museums we have visited.

1. Exhibitions should be research-led, not a form of dissemination

Curators should use exhibitions to find things out (for themselves and for their visitors) and not just regurgitate what is already known. Good curators are inspired and imaginative researchers who find and then build on the investigations of experts and colleagues, juxtaposing varied understandings about their chosen topic. They add their own insights and gradually come up with new ideas and perspectives.

2. A scientist should always be involved in the exhibition, a technologist if it is about technology

Don’t shy away from drawing on real expertise in interpreting a topic or finding exhibits. But this is not to say that the aim of the exhibition is simply to give voice to the views of these experts. They are not, nor should they be encouraged to see themselves as, the curators, but it is vital that their perspectives are present in the final exhibition.

3. Be clear about exhibitions being “multi-authored”

Exhibitions emerge from curatorial collaborations between experts and designers. But a show’s funders, the institutional context and other stakeholders have a bearing on the final outcome; it should be possible for exhibition visitors to find out about these influences.

The project teams who make exhibitions deserve to be credited. Those responsible for the show not only need to take a bow, they also need to be held responsible for its contents and impact.

4. Use only original material

Exhibitions should engage audiences with original material rather than reproductions and props. If you cannot illustrate a topic with original artefacts, images and documents, ask yourself if an exhibition is the best way to make the point. Models, replicas and reproductions can be shown, but only if this is the point of showing them.

Reproductions of artworks should not be used, unless the work’s natural medium is “facsimile” – for example, digital photographs. The use of scientific and medical images raises complicated questions, such as what is the “original” format of a microscopic image of a cell?

Most scientific images today are minted as digital data, and their final appearance invariably owes much to enhancements and cropping. How this material should be displayed and labelled needs consideration. It is often better to leave it out all together.

5. Never show ready-made science

Focus on the processes of science: science in the making; the triumph of discovery; the frustration and blind alleys explored along the way. Also, look at the social and cultural processes of scientific ideas becoming accepted and embedded.

6. Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder

Exhibitions provide opportunities to explore topics in ways that bring new light to sometimes forgotten or less-well understood aspects of medicine, science, technology and their histories. But this urge to demystify subjects should not be allowed to render exhibitions earnestly didactic.

Deliberately include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for. Visitors should leave exhibitions wanting to find out more.

7. Reject most exhibition ideas

Exhibitions represent the meeting point between subjects and material culture, and can be approached from either end – themes or objects first, or a mixture of the two. But often, topics that seem promising will not be worth developing because there simply aren’t good enough objects with which to explore or support them.

Similarly, many areas of material culture end up just not being interesting enough to make a show about. Too often, exhibitions are made from empty ideas of stupid objects. It is worth searching for a topic and a set of objects that harmoniously amplify and mutually enrich each other.

8. Leave out as much as possible

Less is usually more in exhibitions. Visitors will remember and enjoy looking at 10 carefully chosen things more than a 100 that are reasonably well selected.

The most important aspect of an exhibition is its outer boundaries, which keep out the mass of distractions that lie beyond. In the digital era, a core value of a museum exhibition is that it makes its point through displaying a few selected original objects.

9. Embrace the showbusiness of exhibitions

Audiences come to exhibitions in their leisure time and deserve to be lifted out of themselves. They will respond to the drama of the best exhibits, displays, design, writing and lighting.

Make sure that all of this is done well and given the greatest polish. This will enhance the presence of the objects and the impact of the ideas. Don’t be ashamed to admit that making exhibitions is, in part, a matter of putting on a show.

10. Celebrate the ephemeral quality of exhibitions

Catalogues, web-presence and filmed versions of exhibitions can lengthen the shadows cast by exhibitions, but they will never come close to keeping alive the actual experience of visiting a show.

This is an important part of the magic of exhibitions. Like good pieces of theatre, they gain much of their energy by being around for a limited time and then disappearing. The fact that they are time-limited gives their makers a degree of freedom to experiment and be daring. Grasp it!

11. Make exhibitions true to the geography of their venues

The principle is that knowledge is “situated” – the context in which we contemplate and acquire it can seem as important as the ideas or facts themselves. Exhibition makers need to think hard about how to work with the “place” of an exhibition.

Consider what is lost in touring an exhibition where the subject becomes detached from the local context. The country, the city, the venue, the room, and the set and design of an exhibition, even the showcases and the orientation of individual objects – all have a bearing on the meanings that audiences derive from them.

12. Avoid artificial lighting

Use natural light where possible. Start with the light available and build up from it. If possible, reveal the windows and keep the doors open. Let the natural layout of the building be apparent, make it clear where you have introduced false walls. This will enable visitors to keep a sense of where they are.

And don’t fall into the trap of imagining that the background for an exhibition has either to be a neutral black box or a pristine white cube. Ideally, a show should look and feel very different on a midsummer morning to a winter evening.

13. Always involve more than one sense

It is impossible for visitors to turn off their non-visual senses in an exhibition – they will hear, touch and smell things no matter what. So make sure that some of the tactile, audio, or olfactory experiences of an exhibition are curated. Exhibitions work by teasing their visitors into thinking that they could get close enough to what they see to touch it, even while making sure they don’t.

But curators should think about how to introduce at least a few objects that visitors can touch. Never use artificial sounds or odours, but try hard to find ways to enhance the audio and olfactory qualities of the original objects, getting visitors to use their ears and noses.

14. Make exhibitions for inquisitive adults

If you aim at educationally under-achieving primary school children, it will be impossible to engage anyone else (and you are unlikely to engage even your target audience). Many children and teenagers are keenly attracted to adult culture, but very few adults see the attraction of young material.

Never make exhibitions for educational purposes – other media and methods are more effective. It’s also worth bearing in mind that exhibitions are, by their nature, a “childish” medium, bringing out playfulness in all of us. This should be encouraged, but to focus deliberately on young audiences reaps diminishing returns.

15. Remember that visitors ultimately make their own exhibitions

Some visitors might not be interested in reading what the curators write, while others might not look at many objects. Some will be interested in aspects of a topic that the curators might not have come across.

Because of this, when an exhibition opens, it is only ever the second or third draft of an idea that will, through revision, reach maybe its eighth or ninth incarnation by the time it closes.

Exhibitions should be alive, and change is a vital part of life. Even in the most “stable” shows, lights will need adjusting and labels redrafting. An exhibit might even have to be removed or replaced. More radically, some exhibitions should be deliberately half-finished, or set up so that updates can be added halfway through.

16. Make exhibitions the jumping off place for further engagement

Good exhibitions are the point of departure for a longer relationship. The value of exhibitions should only partly be judged by analysing how many people come, how long they spent in a show and what they think of it. On this basis alone, most exhibitions are foolishly expensive ventures, particularly in these cash-strapped times.

Don’t forget that, just occasionally, exhibitions can really change visitors’ lives and this is worth a lot. Effective exhibitions can also bring in new objects to museums, have an impact on recruitment, add to shop sales, improve the organisation’s reputation, and provide a context for corporate celebrations. There is a virtual avalanche of cultural capital that can flow from them: this should be valued from the start.

17. Don’t be afraid to bend, break or reinvent the rules

Eating, walking, stretching and bubbles

A Packed Lunch event at Wellcome Collection

A Packed Lunch event at Wellcome Collection

Can summer be over already? It’s sunny outside as this post is written, but autumn must surely be upon us soon, because we’ve just unveiled our new season of events. It’s quite a selection, ranging from London-wide health issues to microscopic bubbles, taking in skin both stretchy and perfect, packed lunches, delicious suppers and several intriguing strolls. Booking opens tomorrow at 14.00: our events fill up fast, so be ready to book online. And all (except the excellent value Supper Salons) are free.

Nursing and midwifery take over the entire building for an evening in Handle with Care, dedicated to the science and senses of caring professionals. Sick City? takes the form of a balloon debate: four experts each put their case for what they consider to be London’s public health priority. You the audience decide who wins, in a series of votes. And the Pars Foundation take an oblique look at our remarkably flexible skin in their Treats on Elasticity event (more on Pars and their stretchy work in a future blog post).

Lunchtimes will get interesting, as our Packed Lunch series of talks with local scientists returns. Taking her cue from our current exhibition, Isabel Jones kicks off by talking about her work repairing the skin’s delicate structure at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital’s burns unit. UCL’s Nick Lane looks into how complex organisms evolved from simple bacteria (it’s all about the mitochondria), and Peter Ayton from City University explains how we make decisions in a bewildering and complex world. Then it’s back to UCL with Eleanor Stride, who works with microbubbles. It all sounds unmissable, but if you can’t get there in person, the ever-reliable Packed Lunch podcast will be there for you to catch up.

If dinner is more your thing, then Supper Salon will be right up your street. We skip straight to dessert with jelly-makers extraordinaire Bompas and Parr, whose gelatinous creations do so much more than wibble-wobble on your plate. But if you prefer giant crabs to jelly you’ll be in good company with our next guest, Robin Ince, a writer, comedian and collector of very bad literature including tales of the aforementioned crustaceans.

Having filled yourself up with food and ideas, some exercise might be in order, and what better way to take it than with our series of medical walking tours guiding you through the hidden corners and recondite histories of Bloomsbury. Explore the medical marketplace in ‘Conspicuous Consumption’, take a walk on the dark side with ‘Dead Famous’, recall the poverty in Bloomsbury’s history ‘In Sickness and in Health’, and get a taste of the scientific and occult in ‘Secret Bloomsbury’. Walks are led by Richard Barnett, author of Medical London, Strange Attractor‘s Mark Pilkington, and the Wellcome Library’s very own Ross MacFarlane. If you’re taking photographs on the walks (or if you take photographs of medical sites and  scenes anywhere in London), we’re always grateful if you add them to our Medical London Flickr pool, helping us build up a composite contemporary picture of London’s illness and cures.

And don’t forget our events looking at the Wellcome Library and its collections. Investigate the relationship between our heads and our hearts in Mind and Body: Heart and mind, and discover the multimillion-pound industry that feeds our Quest for Perfect Skin. Find out more about Henry Wellcome himself, and about William Morris’s collection of manuscripts in the Library. Focus on lurid tales of London life in Anatomies of London, and the 19th-century enthusiasm for ‘reading faces’ in London Faces. And then see Africa from another angle with a special tour for Black History Month.

Looks like a busy autumn for us. Hope to see you here soon.

Science and sandwiches

Packed Lunch: Daniel Glaser with Rachel Armstrong

Packed Lunch: Daniel Glaser talks to Rachel Armstrong

Turn up with your lunch at Wellcome Collection and you might even encounter someone whose work is the science of sandwiches . Events Officer Jenny Jopson explains what our Packed Lunch events are all about.

We’re lucky at Wellcome Collection to be so brilliantly located – despite being situated on a road with the dubious reputation of being the most polluted in Britain, we have the good fortune to be in an area with an unprecedented density of great scientists carrying out exciting research, at internationally renowned institutions such as University College London, the Royal Veterinary College in Camden, and Birkbeck to name but a few.

It was with this fortuitous fact in mind that we came up with the idea for Packed Lunch last summer – a series of events that would draw on the wealth of talent in our local area and showcase some of the brilliant scientists making discoveries on our doorstep.

We decided to hold the events at lunchtime specifically to target local audiences: people who live, work or study near Wellcome Collection and who might not be able to attend our regular evening events. Places like UCL and Birkbeck already held successful lunchtime lectures, so we knew there was a definite appetite for getting away from the office or library and doing something interesting at lunchtime.

We wanted to make our events different from these existing series, so Packed Lunch features scientists in conversation, talking to our facilitator without the aid of slides or visual aids. It’s a more accessible and informal format than the standard lecture, more like a discussion you might hear on the radio. To that end, we decided to record each event and release it as a podcast, so that the events could reach a wider audience. We wanted to make it as informal as possible, so the events are drop-in, no booking required, and people are encouraged to bring their sandwiches to munch on as they listen.

So, with the defining features of the series in place, I started approaching local institutions for suggestions of speakers (defined as ‘local’ by the highly scientific method of getting a map, drawing a circle of 1 mile radius around Wellcome Collection and seeing which institutions fell inside). I interview prospective guests over the phone, and then if I think their research fits with the ethos of the series, I invite them to come and speak. I look for subjects that are interesting, relevant to our audience’s lives, and possibly slightly quirky.

A year on from the inaugural Packed Lunch event, the series is going strong, with standing room only at the last event (which featured UCL physicist Jonathan Butterworth talking about his other day job, at CERN). We’ve had dinosaur locomotion, clever viruses, living buildings and the science of optimism, and I’m excited about what’s to come. People now come from much further afield than we initially expected them too (France, in one case! Although not specifically for our event, alas), but I think that we’ve succeeded with our original aim to showcase the great work being done right here in NW1. Long may it continue.

Our next Packed Lunch features Professor Jane Wardle talking about food on Friday 18 June. To catch up with past Packed Lunch events, you can listen online or subscribe to our podcast.  If you are a scientist working locally and would like to be considered for a future Packed Lunch event, please email me at

Jenny Jopson is Events Officer at Wellcome Collection.

Curating the quacks

Trade card for Parker's Tonic. Wellcome Images

Trade card for Parker's Tonic. Wellcome Images

What does it take to put together the kind of Wellcome Collection that we call an “all-building spectacle”? Research is key.  Alex Julyan, curator of our forthcoming Quacks and Cures event, writes….

Creating ‘Quacks and Cures‘ has been a great way for me to step from art into medicine, an opportunity to indulge all sorts of passions and interests and experiment with the whole structure of a one-off event that’s part music-theatre, part science and part installation. My brief was so open that once the theme was approved I was free to give the event the shape I wanted, which is surely the best position to be in creatively.  With licence to watch films, trawl archives and have conversations that would normally be outside of my artistic sphere, it was the material and the people I encountered at Wellcome Collection that really gave ‘Quacks’ its form.

I wanted to have a strong visual identity for the event, which gave me an excuse to indulge my interest in ephemera and satirical images. Wellcome Images made me stunning reproductions of 18th- and 19th-century posters for dubious remedies, and images by the artists who mercilessly lampooned the medical profession of their day, much as the cartoonist Steve Bell might humiliate our current political leaders.

I’ve also been able to experiment with performance as a way of presenting the more theatrical elements of the medical profession. Working with trained actors, musicians and GPs (the latter group needing little or no encouragement to ham it up) has been a great way of combining the creative with the medical in a very hands-on way.

Research and more research has formed the backbone of the event and although I was reminded on a couple of occasions that I hadn’t been asked to write a book, the subject is so much richer than I had initially realised. What’s been so striking about the process is how many of the medical debates and divisions of the 18th century are still relevant today.

Alex Julyan is a London-based artist who makes small intricate sculptures from found materials and large-scale collaborative events, performances and site-specific work. Find out more about her work at