If you’ve visited Wellcome Collection in the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed a small medicine chest on display in a glass case at the bottom of the stairs. This object is the ‘Livingstone’ medicine chest, supplied by Burroughs Wellcome & Co. to the Swedish-American explorer Algot Lange for his expeditions to the Amazon in 1911 and 1913. Despite its many historical resonances, this object is only now being displayed to the public for the first time.
Along with objects from four other museums, it forms part of the First Time Out project, conceived by George Loudon and Lisa O’Sullivan, to find five objects from our collections that have never been publicly displayed before and put them on show. The objects will perform a complicated waltz between our museums: each object will be on display for approximately six weeks before it moves on to another venue. In each museum it will be seen in a new context, with new interpretation.
For curators and conservators, this takes some planning and consideration. Not only are the objects fragile and susceptible to damage from light and humidity; they are also physically complicated. For instance, each time they’re moved, every individual toy from Margaret Lowenfeld’s tray of toys has to be safely packed for transportation before the entire scene is recreated in a new venue.
Where you see an object can have an enormous influence on how you perceive it. At Wellcome Collection you could be inclined to consider the medicine chest in the context of the history of branded medicine; at Kew you might see it in a wider context of plant extracts as medicines and the various forms in which they are delivered.
All these objects can also be seen on our websites, of course. But does the web carry the same institutional weight as the museum environment itself? To find out, we and our fellow web people at the other four museums have constructed a web of links for First Time Out between all our websites. You can follow an object across all five sites; see the medicine chest above, for example, on the Horniman, Natural History Museum, Kew and Science Museum websites, and read the different interpretations to see how each museum understands each object.
To me, each website has the unique feel of its museum: design and typography indicate where you are on the web, just as much as the subdued deco of Wellcome Collection itself or the open space of the Royal Botanic Gardens. For some of these objects this is also the first time they’ve been seen online. Whether you make a virtual visit, or come in the flesh, I hope you enjoy these rediscoveries of hidden objects.