Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries, Science Museum London

On the 16th November 2019, the new Medicine exhibit in London’s Science Museum opened to the public, a collection featuring more than 3000 medical artefacts, artworks and interactive exhibits that transformed the first floor in a new, contemporary and modern setting. It marks a critical stage for the museum that has been undertaking a transformative program of developing its existing displays and spaces to present a more interactive and stimulating environment of learning for visitors. The old exhibit was hidden away on the top floor of the museum, it had the air of a secret space, tucked away up a discreet stairway revealing a compact and full area of wooden cabinets and almost archaic recreations of medical rooms rooms and facilities that very much gave away its age and stature. It felt bereft of care and attention, this new exhibit, a showcase of the museums ethos of expansion and upgrading its aged appearance is a welcome step in returning the location to prominence and a destination to visit as an attraction.

The new exhibit is an open and expansive display of its existing collection with new artwork on display including work from Marc Quinn, Eleanor Crook, Siân Davey and Studio Roso. The biggest improvement to the exhibition is how open and light it now feels, once a secluded dark room now an open and spacious area encompassing the entirety of the first floor with an open view to the ground floor below. Before it’s renovation this area was home to a series of models and other exhibits, interesting to an extent but almost an afterthought in its appearance and presentation. There is a great deal of space and light now in the new display, its creates a welcoming atmosphere to just walk around and learn about the history of medicine and its impact on modern culture from its earliest roots to the present day. It’s a simple notion to aspire towards, but a welcoming and relaxing environment is conducive to learning, I’ll accept not always possible especially with heritage buildings and structures that face limitations in how much they can change their foundations. Here, thankfully, a nice and open layout that is far more appealing visually to explore without feeling constrained behind wooden cabinets and narrow walkways. A very welcome change.

The exhibit is formed of five distinct galleries, the bold sculpture by artist Marc Quinn a visual treat as you enter the new medicine wing before being surrounded by an assortment of specimens and artefacts covering the spectrum of medical treatment and diagnosis. I’ll concede my knowledge on the issue is rudimentary at best, but the items on show do follow a somewhat chronological order of development over time from the basic pencil sketches of anatomy to the more detailed models developed presumably through advancement in understanding of knowledge over time. Its fascinating to explore, and as detailed and informative as you want it to be. I enjoyed the mixture of artefacts and interactive exhibits, whether your penchant was for the macabre or the latest digital trends, you were well catered with workstations and video playback providing context and explanation over and above what was provided on display. It’s a delicate line to walk, especially in a field that requires such an intricate degree of study and application to attract the layman and to provide an appealing exhibit to visit. I felt, it succeeded and certainly caters towards those of a scientific disposition and others who have the desire to just expand their personal knowledge in the area.

The Medicine and Communities gallery is certainly the most interactive of the exhibits and where I felt the museum will succeed in influencing and connecting to visiting school groups and a general audience. On prior occasions in other areas and certainly not a directed criticism but age and condition has seen displays and workstations broken or inopperative. Everything here was new and exciting, a highlight for me an interactive game of how you would treat a patient during their critical care period to keep them alive. The competitive side overtook me and I was determined to keep my patient alive, and I succeeded, if finance ever fails me I know from here I’ll make a great doctor. One aspect of the exhibit I did pick up which felt like an interesting modern take, a lack of direction or focus, with no set path or route to follow, the area is open enough you can approach from either direction of the museum and just enjoy the various displays without the sensation of blocking or holding others up behind you. Perhaps its the peculiar British sense of fairness but the feeling of overindulging and holding others up in your wake is an uncomfortable feeling in route based exhibitions, I like this sort of open plan ethos as you can just walk idly along enjoying what’s around you without that pressure to move on.

Exploring medicine was an interesting assortment of treatments across the spectrum of time with a variety of ingredients and samples on show. Visually, one of the more appealing and equally disturbing areas to explore and see with some beautiful illuminated glass work that would sit beside a display in the National Gallery contrasted to a human skull. You can’t help but notice and appreciate the entire display has been curated and designed with a visual aesthetic in mind, every section in every cabinet seem’s important and impeccable in its layout, there is no wasted space and visually its just appealing to view. From an information perspective perhaps its somewhat lacking in providing context or the societal impact, labels identify the items but there is no further explanation provided visually. That said, if you understand the context of this area being medicines and medicinal treatment there is little more to add in that regard. It was interesting, the jars on show elicited memories of Aliens with the ingredients inside and the light work and black background contrasted to the glass finish, irrespective of the subject matter, the display is extremely photogenic.

On the opposite side a section devoted to the notion of Memento Mori, the latin term for ‘remember you will die’. The exhibitions more macabre section devoted to the emblems of death, an array of skulls across societal boundaries and ages with a curious focus and illustration on their more stoic use to the more darkened humorous aspect of their appearance. Tonally, a slight shift as the very next cabinet featured a display on the first NHS paramedic bike deployed and the medical kit carried on call. Whether this worked side by side is questionable, I’ll leave that for you to consider and answer for yourself if you have an opportunity to attend. Either way, taken in its entirety it was an interesting section to view, incredibly artistic which was not something I had envisioned when I decided to visit the exhibit with clean lines, illumination and backgrounds. A complete contrast to the old brown wooden cabinets and dated displays that made up the old medicine display.

Emerging out into the medicine and treatments walkways you are almost overwhelmed with the bright white aesthetic of the area. One of the key attractions is the recreation of the medical treatment theatre, in its original incarnation this was a painfully out of date display, today almost a modern art exhibit with the chains cascading down around the minimalist equipment and artefacts on show. No mannequins or outdated NHS signage, understated simplicity which in turn creates a timeless appearance that is fascinating to see and explore. The items on show create a story of the history of treatment in medicine in the country, but is bold enough to move away from the clinical and surgical items and expand towards the psychological aspect with an area devoted to the treatment of the mind which was a fascinating part to see. Also, I did enjoy the display devoted to the provision of exclusive Lego sets to children undergoing cancer treatment, its such an unstated gesture by the company but can imagine having such a positive and uplifting impact on kids at that age undergoing a form of medicine anyone would find an ordeal to go through.

Towards the end of the exhibit, or the beginning depending on where you start, a recreation of an old fashioned pharmacy which was charming and something a little different from everything else in the museum. It’s a feature and aspect that has become popular in these sort of ‘experience’ driven exhibits, in the Museum of London for instance there is almost an entire gallery devoted to recreating historical shops, I suppose for an audience it serves to juxtapose medicine from the historical era onto a modern day audience. I enjoy it, but it does feel very much of this time of experience led educational exhibits that perhaps adds less in the way of information and more towards eliciting a feeling in its visitor base. I enjoy them and the chemist here in particular, it certainly looked the part and not some cheap fabricade and the interior had a range of items and treatments that would raise questions from an enquiring audience or school group so in the end perhaps it serves its purpose.

I appreciated and enjoyed the final gallery in the exhibit devoted to the spiritual and ritualistic medicinal practises over the ages. Even a brief knowledge or appreciation of history will have informed you have certain practises or sacrifices have been enacted in the name of medicine and the prevention or curing of disease and ailments. From our knowledgeable vantage point of course we can look back at these superstitious practises with a level of skepticism and cynicism at these beliefs but they were an aspect of healing in those societies, and alarmingly certain cultures in our enlightened period of history still practise using certain animal parts for instance in their medicines. It was interesting to see the ritualistic totems and artefacts from a variety of cultural and religious practices, you could imagine or expect a focus on the embalming process of the Egyptian civilization for instance given its prominence in historical education so it was refreshing to see a broad spectrum of items across a variety of cultures.

Overall, a substantial improvement over the old Medicine exhibit at the Science Museum. In contrast to the old brown cabinets and dated displays, a modern exhibition, clearly with a great deal of funding and planning to bring it to life in a meaningful way. One of the issues I’ve felt with this particular museum during its refurbishment program was the reduction of any meaningful exhibits to draw you back in contrast to its neighbours and peers. Thankfully, with that program coming to fruition, you may well feel more enticed to returning here on a more regular basis, there are areas and portions of the museum still to improve, certain parts do still feel dated and in need of refurbishment but largely its becoming the exception and not the rule. I would long for the space exploration area to see a similar level of investment, indeed it was a large inspiration for me to return to America in recent years to visit the Air and Space museum in Washington. This new exhibit is an open and spacious area to explore, a genuinely pleasant experience and a substantial improvement on showcasing the impact and legacy of medical practise in both this country and across the globe.

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