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The Wellcome Collection's Reading Room, 183, Euston Road, London.
January 27, 2015
Vaccinate against anxiety and worry
Signed: Date: 6/12/2014
As I sit below a green felt board scattered with light blue papers tucked behind orange elastic, I glance up to find Londoners’ most pressing ailments. A little note requesting vaccination against loss of family members. Death was not the priority here, it is her. Loss is transformed into a disease with hope of a quick fix. In a centre for medicine and science, imaginary prescriptions give hope, requesting one gives time to observe oneself and perhaps this process alone contributes to a healing process. A tension and a connection exists throughout the entire Wellcome Collection’s curatorial scheme between science and art, medicine and spirituality, living and the scholarship of life, the past and present.
I have not returned to The Wellcome Collection since taking part in Sheila Ghelani’s Covet Me, Care For Me, a live art transformative performance installed in the Medicine Now gallery as part of an exhibition themed around the heart in 2011. This piece has stayed with me as a massive influence and inspiration ever since, and on returning to the Wellcome Collection it is uplifting not to be let down after such a magnificent first impression.
Attempting quite naively to turn up and visit The Institute of Sexology, we discover that it is sold out for the day, but a quick chat to a collection attendant arms us with inside knowledge. So while the masses queued to be confronted by sexuality and whatever that entails, we slip away to the recently opened Reading Room in what feels like a parallel universe. Expecting to tiptoe around an awe-inspiring but unattainable temple of knowledge somewhere between the Bodleian and the British Museum, I am puffed up to be transported to a new type of exhibition, one where I feel quite at home. Everything matches and looks beautiful but not to the point where you can’t touch anything. A play room for both children and grownups, for the silly and serious among us. The room is divided into sections where bookshelves house current publications, games, and exhibits that parallel contemporary and historical medical themes. Oil paintings hang opposite x-ray machines, people sprawl on cushions and read whilst others play board games. The categorisation and display of knowledge is not confusing or cluttered as might be expected from my description, it is thematic and varied, inspirational and quizzical. A Museum of curiosities, art gallery, reading room and play house this mise en scéne is at once something more than all of its components but with the upmost of ease.
As I pick my way through a cabinet of favours or trinkets that were used to ward off anything from cramp by a pair of tiny mole’s feet to witches, by a stone tied to a key, I marvel at the wishful rituals. Sitting in the corner sheltered by the prescriptions I study the elegant art nouveau-like curves of an x-ray machine, dislocated from its original context so that it almost becomes an art installation. As my ally reappears, critically observing his reaction to a personality test he has just taken, sitting under the very prescriptions that hold a mirror up to my own diagnosis, it strikes me that on entering this peaceful haven we inadvertently climb into and strap ourselves to the statuesque x-ray contraption inviting interrogation and exposure without knowing it. There is something both comforting and disconcerting about being surrounded by knowledge and formula but being confronted by our lack of control over life and our bodies. At this point it was time to chat to the attendant about Edward Lovett’s collection of trinkets promising to find his book “Magic in Modern London”, and to return again very soon.