It’s a rare room where one raking glance can take in a columnar dress in scarlet fake-fur, a 1920s ‘dental station’ and a tot partly sculpted from synthetic milk powder. But such is the new Reading Room at London’s Wellcome Collection, part of biomedical research funding giant the Wellcome Trust’s £17.5 million refit, and now open to the public.
“We see it as a creative bridge between the library and collection,” says senior media officer Tim Morley, “a kind of ‘This way here’ sign for the library, with a taste of our public programmes.”
An asymmetrical spiral staircase connects the airy room with other floors. Ten niches — themed Alchemy, Body, Breath, Face, Faith, Food, Lives, Mind, Pain and Travel — offer space to study some of the 1,000 books on offer, draw or play boardgames. In the communal middle, a digital autopsy station dares you to (virtually) unpeel the wrappings of several mummies. The seating and floor cushions are upholstered in pale green and red fabric with a fetching mid-century modern design from the Festival of Britain, based on insulin’s crystalline structure.
“People can delve deeper into the collection’s themes here, and really explore,” notes assistant media officer Holly Story. “There’s a playful element, and they can draw their own threads through and make their own links.”
The vast trove of scientific, cultural and medical objects amassed by Wisconsin-born pharmacologist-entrepreneur Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) and his successors range from the exquisite to the grotesque. Predictably, the 100 that made the cut are rich and strange indeed.
That blood-hued gown, a 2014 copy of the 1997 original by British designer Helen Storey and her embryologist sister Kate, depicts the closing of a neural tube in early embryonic development. A scatter of charms and amulets (many from Oxford’s anthropological goldmine, the Pitt Rivers Museum) include dried moles’ feet, once thought to guard against toothache. A silver-plated “bronchitis kettle”, a facsimile of the fifteenth-century Alchemical Processes and Receipts, an anatomical wax moulange showing acne of the hand — it’s the classic embarrassment of riches.
As I contemplate this shining window-lined space with its phalanx of pendant lamps, I wonder how its design will drive use, and how the curatorial mix will enhance understanding of the ‘human wilderness’. Do luxe seating and designer lighting sit oddly with an invitation to don a straitjacket and contemplate anonymous paintings of flayed bodies?
But it’s precisely that tension between comfort and that zone beyond it that makes this space potent. As I leave, I gaze enchanted at a small vanitas oil on canvas. The eighteenth-century figure in the frame — half pompadoured woman, half skeleton — is an emblem of human mortality and a check to vanity. Yet there is something here of the very modern Frida Kahlo, whose self-portraits can be like dissections baring both her own medical trauma and the precarious human condition. Pure Wellcome — finding the universals under the skin.
The Reading Room is part of Wellcome Collection at 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE (www.wellcomecollection.org). Wellcome show The Institute of Sexology runs through September; listen here to Geoff Marsh’s Nature Podcast Extra interview with co-curator Honor Beddard.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.