For the last ten years, Euston Road has played host to some of the most unconventional conversations in the capital. For this, kudos must be given to the Wellcome Collection.
Through its exhibitions, both permanent and revolving, the museum-cum-gallery-cum-library has been actively encouraging people to think about life, death and everything in between. This – in case you were wondering – includes such grown-up topics as tantric Buddhist sex, the science behind the human genome and the use of cocaine-laced eye-drops in Victorian England.
Housed in a beautiful Palladian building on Euston Road, the Collection first opened its doors to the public in 2007. Drawing on the legacy of Henry Wellcome, a pharmacist and philanthropist, the space was intended to be a showroom for Sir Henry’s vast collection of artefacts (which ran into the millions), gathered throughout his well-travelled life until his death in 1936.
The Wellcome Building, which was built to Henry’s specifications in 1932, was to house and display a great number of his findings, and act as a platform for discourse between the public and medical professionals about the development of medicine and medical science.The Collection is part of the Wellcome Trust, the HQ of which sits next door. Initially set up from the will of Sir Henry, it has now transformed into one of the world’s largest bio-medical research charities. It places great emphasis on the benefits of public engagement for scientific research, hence why the Collection – and similar global and national outreach programmes – are an important component of the vital work the Trust does.
“When we decided to open the Collection, we knew we wanted to offer a way of exploring our place in the world by thinking deeply about the connections between science, media, life and art,” says Rachel Collins, who has been with Wellcome for 15 years.
The team wanted to create a free destination with a library and museum, plus installations and talks, but didn’t fully know how to categorise themselves and crucially, what the appetite for a project like theirs would be.
“We started with fairly humble expectations,” says Rachel, “initially, we were looking to attract 100,000 annual visitors.” A matter of years after opening they had a serious problem on their hands; there were more than 500,000 annual visitors attempting to cram into a space intended for one fifth of that. The team decided to embark on a vast expansion project which, by its completion in 2013, doubled the space for events and added new galleries.
The Collection now contains a library – stocking more that 750,000 books and journals – as well as a café, bookshop, restaurant, exhibition and learning space and the iconic Reading Room. “This is one of the most successful parts of the Collection,” says Rachel. It is a tranquil, interactive area that “blurs the lines between research library and public space.” With regular tours, talks, rows of books and plenty of beanbags to settle into, “it is a haven from bustling Euston.”Alongside Medicine Man, a constant exhibit where you can muse over Sir Henry’s curious findings – including Japanese sex aids and Napoleon’s toothbrush – there are constant changing exhibitions. These have included an exploration of the rise and fall of the mental asylum, the experience of human consciousness and our perception of animals.
The current exhibition asks whether graphic design can save our lives, while the first few months of 2018 will be spent examining teeth.
“We have a treasure trove of subject matter to work with,” says Rachel, “the concept of health is too broad and allows us to delve into the psychological and physical. This allows the Collection to continuously morph and reenergise.”
Wellcome’s desire to instigate new ideas and initiate conversations about our place in the world ensures that even now, ten years down the line, “it’s so bustling with energy and ideas that people leave with the perception that we’ve only recently opened,” says Rachel.