By Lizzie Fu
“Featuring three thousand objects and covering an area equivalent to 1,500 hospital beds, Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries is the magnificent new home for the most significant medical collections in the world.”
I was fortunate to visit the new Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum in London before the UK lockdown. Showcasing extraordinary artifacts, including the world’s first MRI scanner, Fleming’s penicillin mould, a professional pianist’s prosthetic arm and even robotic surgery equipment, the galleries explore our relationship with medicine through more than 500 years of history.
Split into sections labelled “Faith, Hope and Fear”, “Medicine and Communities”, “Medicine and Treatments”, and “Medicine and Bodies”, the exhibition is divided to give different perspectives on how humans interact with their health.
“Faith, Hope and Fear” contained a range of items and personal accounts about faith and religion in relation with medicine. From healing waters to offerings, and pilgrimages to alternative therapies, the display showed how even modern medicine does not answer everyone’s wants. Many turn to social, spiritual, or emotional solutions when scientific medicine fails them.
One example was a story about a woman named Tabitha and her struggle with in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Since IVF is a very physically and emotionally demanding process that is often more likely to fail than succeed, Tabitha found herself one of many putting faith in alternative therapies, mostly “magical” rituals that receive backlash for being unscientific and giving false hope. On display is Tabitha’s Gown, a hospital gown embroidered by Tabitha showing her fertility story.
Yet, perhaps the most striking part of the gallery was Eleanor Crook’s bronze sculpture Santa Medicina, an imposing figure who is both a surgeon and a saint with anatomical votive offerings attached all over her. The dark coloring of the statue and the fusion of religion and science really drove home how medicine is interlaced with spirituality, sometimes becoming blurred and confusing for people as they tread in deep waters.
“Medicine and Communities” explored the way medicine has shaped the way we live, influencing us both at the individual and community levels. The gallery questioned how much we should let medicine rule our lives, as some practices can really affect our social relationships. The main focus of this section was on isolation, debating whether society gives the right treatment for certain cases. Leprosy, for instance, has historically faced a range of reactions. If caught early, leprosy can be easily cured, but if left untreated, leprosy can cause permanent damage and result in immobilizing disabilities. Unfortunately, because many people believe leprosy is more contagious than it really is, today leper colonies still exist. This continued stigmatization can mean people with leprosy are reluctant to seek help, which means that society’s way of treating them is not effective. Other illustrations included psychiatric hospitals, whose forms of treatment, whether it be straitjackets, drugs, or just how the hospital operates, have always been disputable and argued to be in need of reform. The practice of quarantine, extremely relevant today, was brought up as detrimental to our mental health or at the very least, something that has come to rule our lives and economies.
“Medicine and Treatments” covered the advances in techniques for caring for ourselves. It remarked on how while the range of treatments has widened, much of it—whether that be drugs, surgery, or therapy—depends on trust, innovation, and sometimes luck. The presentations were sorted by case studies, which allowed me to see how treatment for a specific illness has evolved over time. Polio was a great example, as I got to see an iron lung (a mechanical respirator which encloses most of a person’s body and varies the air pressure to stimulate breathing) and then eventually how the polio vaccine rolled out, and how vaccines are developed in general. The topic of vaccines was also briefly explored further into why it has become a debate, as many people still do not trust vaccines. A more current example was malaria, showing how we are continually inventing ways to manage the disease, especially due to increasing resistance to malaria drugs. In addition, the orientation of hospitals was mentioned in this section, a prime example being Florence Nightingale’s designs, which aimed to reduce the spread of infection by dividing the hospital into sections. What came through was that the way we manage and treat all types of illnesses is constantly changing and hence keeps the medical scene exciting and challenging.
“Medicine and Bodies” stripped medicine down to the fundamental idea that we have to continue learning about our human physiology. Understanding our bodies is key to medicine, and for us to progress, we need to remember to have a firm grasp on anatomy and metabolic processes. Objects in this area included Watson and Crick’s DNA double helix model, a discovery that revolutionized the field of genetic medical research, a rod structure of myoglobin, and an interactive table about the human body.
Overall, I thought the exhibition was very comprehensive and informative. It gave a fascinating overview of our relationship to medicine and made the medical world more tangible, as it avoided too much complex scientific language and related everything to everyday human life. It was not really an exhibition that just showed medicine in itself or its scientific aspects, but rather took a more historical and artistic view on medicine through artefacts. I would definitely recommend this exhibition whether you are interested in medicine or just in learning more about your health! You can explore online here: