Science Interviews


Sun, 1st Jul 2007

The Wellcome Collection

Dr Ken Arnold, Wellcome Trust

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Ben Valsler:  On the 21st of June the Wellcome Collection opened to the public.  Sited on Euston road, the Wellcome collection combines three contemporary galleries together with the world famous Wellcome library and a new forum for public debate on science; they offer a fantastic line-up of events throughout the year including music, tours, storytelling and even live surgery.

I spoke to Dr Ken Arnold, the head of public programs for the Wellcome trust, about what to expect.

Human genomeKen Arnold:  The Wellcome Collection has somewhere near 1500 exhibits, so this is a gallery full of treasures and curiosities.  They’re arranged in three galleries, one of them is called medicine man where we look at the life and work of Henry Wellcome.  Alongside that an exhibition that looks at Medicine Now, so the Human Genome, Malaria, Obesity and the Quest to picture the human body.  And then in our temporary exhibition space we’ve started with The Heart, which looks at both the history of how we’ve understood the heart, but also not forgetting that the heart is absolutely at the core of our emotional response.  So exhibits from around the world that show that sense in which the heart is just as important as a symbol as it is a pump, keeping us alive.

Ben -   Visitors will be entranced by the range of unusual artefacts on display in the medicine man gallery.  Consisting of hundreds of examples from Henry Wellcome's personal collection, Medicine man offers a glimpse of the history of medicine and of attitudes towards the human body.

Visitor 1:  We came here deliberately because we had heard good things about the collection, a bit odd, quite eclectic.  Maybe Henry Wellcome was quite a weird chap?  And I think I’m probably beginning to agree with that.  There are some very, very weird things here, but it’s really interesting.

Ben -   Certain items in the collection are intrinsically fascinating, as explained by visitor services assistant, Brittany Hudak.

Brittany Hudak:  I think that so far people have tended to gravitate towards the Peruvian Mummy, or even people coming in the door have asked “where’s the mummy?”  Which goes to show that the fascination of the mummified body is apparently still alive and well.

Ken Arnold:  This is a mummified male figure in a sort of foetal position with its very delicate skin draped over the skeleton.  It’s between five and seven hundred years old.  One of the things that I’m sure intrigued Wellcome is that fact that actually this is completely naturally preserved.  It’s simply wrapped in textiles and then dried.  It shows that the people who did this had a strong understanding of how to preserve biological material.  Also, of course, what we’re able to do now is apply modern scientific techniques to study objects like this.

Ben -   I spoke to some of the visitors on the opening day to see what aspects of the collection had caught their eye.

Visitor 1:  Well at the moment I’m stood in front of a bunch of nipple shields, which is quite interesting, I certainly haven’t seen any of those before!

Visitor 2:  I think that all the old medical instruments are very interesting and a bit gruesome as well.  Dissection models and things like that.

Visitor 3:  I found it very interesting to see the changes in different cultures and over time that medicine has progressed, so looking at things like artificial limbs they’ve had in the past, and how much better ours are nowadays is interesting to see.

Ben -   In contrast to medicine man, the medicine now gallery focuses on issues in contemporary medicine. In this exhibition, installations of provocative modern art add an extra dimension to an otherwise clinical display of the tools of modern medicine.  I asked Dr Arnold to pick a highlight…

Ken Arnold:  This exhibit here is the Human Genome, printed out in all its glory; all 3.4 billion letters of it.  We’re standing in front of a bookshelf which is almost 5 meters tall, about 2 meters wide and it has 120 volumes, all of them about the size of a telephone directory.  To print the Human genome in these books we’ve had to reduce it to 4.5 point type, so type that’s about a quarter of the size of the average newspaper type.  You open a volume and you find just millions and millions of C’s, of T’s of G’s of A’s.  And as a source of information this at once seems like the most extraordinary book of life, both literal and metaphorical, and yet in a curious way it also means nothing to the average person on the street.  There is then this kind of tension here of being the richest source of information we could possibly have, and yet also maybe at the same time the deepest mystery.

Ben -   In addition to the two permanent galleries, The Heart exhibition is the first to fill the temporary gallery.  Exploring both the anatomical function of the heart as well as its powerful cultural symbolism, this exhibition includes ancient Egyptian artefacts and Leonardo Da Vinci drawings through to cutting edge cardiovascular imaging technology, even detouring through the music of Hank Williams.

Ken Arnold:  This is the most recently added exhibit to the heart show.  It is a Human heart.  It doesn’t look too healthy; it’s got lots of yellow tissue on the outside of it.  Remarkably enough, this heart was beating inside the chest of Jennifer Sutton just a fortnight ago.  She had a heart transplant operation and was good enough to allow us to put it on display.  So we have the remarkable possibility that Jennifer could, when she’s feeling a bit better, come in and actually look at her own old heart.

Ben -   By marrying science with art, historical with contemporary, the Wellcome Collection provides something to engage everyone.

Brittany Hudak:  I rather enjoyed today watching people kind of looking at an object and then going and opening one of the cabinets and learning about it and going “Oh My Gosh! Do you know what that is?”  I do feel like light bulbs are going off all over.  It really is an individual experience, I think everyone in here could find something different that they would enjoy.

Ben -   For more information about how to find the Wellcome Collection, its opening hours and details about upcoming events, you can visit the collection’s website, at


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