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Shrunken Heads, George Washington’s Hair and Other Curiosities - A Look at London's Museums

UNITED KINGDOM | Tuesday, 1 April 2014 | Views [661]

London boasts a phenomenal number of museums, around 240 in total. Included in these monuments to the wonder of human accomplishment and our natural world are such greats as the Tate Modern, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the mother of them all; the British Museum. With a plethora of displays on offer, it is possible to find an exhibit for everyone, even down to the most banal of tastes, such as those found at the gripping London Public Transport Museum, the enthralling British Dental Association Museum, and the slightly more curious if not a little exclusive, Kennel Club Art Gallery (exhibiting a collection of dog paintings to be viewed by appointment only). It is fairly safe to say that tucked away somewhere, there is an exhibit to suit even the most particular and refined fetishist.

Admittedly, collecting is a pastime not peculiar to the British people. Around the world people toil to bring together items related to their own odd obsessions; tea sets, stamps, ornamental spoons, porcelain figures immortalizing the acrobatic nature of various sex acts etc. But, for the British, collecting is more than just a pastime; it has become over the centuries an obsession. The most staggering example of this compulsive behavior has been amassed within the walls of the 75000m2 goliath the British Museum. With an impressive 80000 articles on display one peruses the great halls in wonderment until realizing that the articles on display to the public amount to only 1% of the total hoard. The remainder of the collection, stashed away in vast storerooms, brings the total number of items in their possession to around 8 million, with the oldest piece dating back some 2 million years.

When thinking about the great lengths gone to in order to glean a collection of such enormity, one can only start to wonder if there is something fundamentally “wrong” with the people who chose to put their lives’ work in to assembling this mass of stuff. Frankly, it is hard to ignore the parallels to compulsive hoarding, a disorder linked with other conditions such as psychoses, dementia and autism, that often leads to ostracism and social isolation; take the proverbial Cat Lady for example. Thankfully, the majority of Museums in London focus on the assemblage of pieces of educational, artistic and scientific value instead of old newspapers and worn underwear, though surely there is a museum for that tucked away somewhere. 

Having noted the above, two of the most fascinating exhibits on show in London today - the Wellcome Gallery and the Huntarian Museum - and the collectors who assembled them draw a thin line between professional interest and full-blown obsession. Henry Wellcome and John Hunter were not your average car boot sale curio hunters. These fascinating characters, both renowned for their work in the field of medicine, were wealthy, influential, and fanatical enough to take their search for the scientific, weird and wonderful to the road, not just in the UK but around the world.

Sir Henry Wellcome was born in the United States but lived from the age of 27 in the United Kingdom and died at the ripe old age of 82. A British Knight and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons England, he collected over one and a half million different objects and books relating to the history of medicine from around the world in his lifetime. Such was his obsession with collecting and documenting everything medical, at the peak of his hoarding he had a network of buyers that he dispatched across the globe to acquire objects on his behalf. Boxes containing books and objects of interest from around the world flowed in to his London property at such a rate that many of the items were not properly catalogued until after his death. In 1936 his personal collection was larger than the majority of museums in Europe and approximately five times the size of that possessed by the Louvre.

The Wellcome collection, while being largely composed of items relating to medical history also includes a range of non-medical items, from furniture to torture implements, a shrunken head and locks of hair from George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte among others. He also collected many versions of the same item in order to catalogue the forms and development of different tools and technology. Eventually his collection became so vast and varied it was criticized for having little focus. Wellcome’s ultimate dream was to construct an all encompassing “Museum of Man”, but after his death it was decided that his dream would never come to fruition and the display was eventually simplified to concentrate on the science and history of medicine.

John Hunter too was a passionate man. His life’s assemblage of around 15000 specimens focused on anatomy, pathology, and osteology, but was not limited to just humans. He was fascinated by the effects of disease on the bodies of humans and animals alike and preserved slices and sections of anatomy affected by various ailments and injuries in order to form a greater understanding of how the body combated, adapted and compensated for physical damage caused by these factors. He saw the commonalities between all living creatures and endeavored to learn and teach stronger surgical techniques garnered by the study of his vast collection from around the world. Unfortunately, a good portion of his collection was lost during bombing in 1941. Today the Huntarian Collection contains around 3500 pieces. This slightly eerie display of skeletons, human fetuses and animal entrails is not for the fainthearted but is immensely interesting and educational for those who are less squeamish.

Thanks to People like Henry Wellcome and John Hunter you would be hard pressed to find a wider range of captivating items in any one city around the world. While the motivations and methods employed to bring together the great wealth of artifacts on display in London today may be questionable, there is one thing that cannot be questioned; it would be near impossible to view and truly appreciate all of these pieces in just one lifetime, and for that we should be thankful. 

Tags: british museum, collectors, hoarders, huntarian museum, london, wellcome collection



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