a parade of objects


There is a familiar story about a sad and lonely man filling up an entire house with bric-a-brac until he is obliged to crawl about inside it like a mole, searching for an unfilled corner. Collecting can develop into a disease. Grander collections demand endless money to feed the infection, but the symptoms are similar: an inability to throw anything away, a reluctance to organise what has already been bought in the mad drive to collect still more, and a pathological secretiveness. Henry Wellcome, renowned philanthropist and founder of a pharmaceutical empire, filled whole warehouses with crates of his purchases. Every crate was packed in turn with numerous objects – hundreds of pestles and mortars, dozens of spears, pillboxes, jujus, naïve paintings, African masks, stone tools. He wanted to collect the entire history of mankind. It all started modestly enough. The history of medicine was a neglected topic at the end of the nineteenth century. Inspired by the contemporary burgeoning of natural history and anthropological museums, Wellcome wished to create an exhibition laying out the story of medical treatment through the objects of the trade. The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum eventually opened in June 1913 in Wigmore Street, to general acclaim.

more from Richard Fortey at Literary Review here.