Site display: Normal | Text Only

My Collection | About Us | Teachers

Collecting medicine

Henry Wellcome, 1885.

Henry Wellcome, 1885.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) used the personal profits from the drug firm he co-founded to collect an astonishing range of items and objects. By the time of his death, his collection - which numbered approximately 1 million items - dwarfed those of many of Europe's most famous museums.

However, Wellcome's collection was not designed as a showcase of great artworks and priceless antiques. In fact, Wellcome had a specific - if broad-ranging - aim in mind: an exploration of our instinct for self-preservation. To tell this story, Wellcome acquired an astonishing range of everyday artefacts dating back to antiquity: from porcelain to statues, medical equipment to amulets, they all fitted into Wellcome's grand scheme.

Collecting

Just as Wellcome's pharmaceutical company stretched around the world, his collecting habits were similarly global. Wellcome’s experts travelled all over the world on his behalf, tracking down items of interest: one collector even spent ten years touring Asia searching for items for the collection.

Wellcome kept a close eye on his collectors' activities, marking up auction catalogues to highlight the items that interested him, and setting limits on the amount of money he was willing to spend. Wellcome was also obsessed with secrecy: he used pseudonyms and tried to create false trails, fearing auction houses and dealers would push up their prices if they knew he was bidding.

Displaying

To showcase his collection, Wellcome opened his Historical Medical Museum in 1913. The museum featured a Hall of Primitive Medicine, a Hall of Statuary, a Portrait Gallery and a series of period rooms and reconstructions. The Historical Medical Museum was located at 54A Wigmore Street, in the heart of the London's medical district.

Statuary hall at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum.

Statuary hall at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Wellcome’s museum was very different from museums today. His was designed for serious research, much like the scientific research laboratories he also funded. This meant restrictions on those who could visit - you could not just walk in off the street; if you wanted to visit the Museum you had to apply in writing!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Wellcome's restrictions, visitor numbers to Wigmore Street were low and in 1932 the museum was closed and moved to the new Wellcome Research Institute on Euston Road. Even with a larger space, Wellcome's historical exhibits could not all be viewed at once. By the time of Wellcome's death in 1936, more of the objects he had collected lay in storage than on display.

Dispersal

Sir Henry Wellcome looking down at the excavations at Jebel Moya, Sudan, 1913-1914.

Sir Henry Wellcome looking down at the excavations at Jebel Moya, Sudan, 1913-1914.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

After Wellcome's death, many of the objects from his collection were gradually dispersed to different institutions around the world. The ideas behind his collection - rooted in Victorian anthropology - had fallen out of academic favour and the scale of his ambition could perhaps never have been achieved.

With hindsight however, the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum marks a fascinating point in the history of museums: a midpoint between earlier 'cabinets of curiosities' and museums as we know them today. Wellcome's vast collection may now be dispersed across the globe, but today’s technologies mean it can be reassembled and reinterpreted.