March’s Object of the Month could be said to be the biggest one so far, although it’s not really an object at all. This is the first of three blog posts celebrating the past, present and future of the very building Wellcome Collection occupies at 183 Euston Road. This is particularly fitting as today’s #MuseumWeek theme is about the buildings #BehindTheArt. Alyson Mercer examines the beginnings of the display of objects as an ensemble and the launch of Wellcome Collection’s home in our building on Euston Road.
The keen eyed amongst our loyal visitors will have noticed that the foundation stone for Wellcome Collection was laid on 25 November 1931. This is by no means the beginning of the story of how our collection came to be, but rather a turning point in the display of the Collection itself.
If you’ve recently visited us here at 183 Euston Road, you will have noticed that Wellcome Collection is changing. We often have visitors come in and share memories with our Visitor Services team of how the museum used to look, or ask to see exhibitions that are no longer on display. It’s fascinating to hear about the ways in which the building has played host to so many different people and objects over the past eight decades.
The display of Henry Wellcome’s collection (as a whole) relating to the history of medicine (as part of his lifelong ambition to create a museum of man) dates back to 1913. However, records show that Wellcome had previously displayed parts of his collection for the sole purpose of promoting his company. Through events like the ‘Annual Museum’, organised by the British Medical Association (BMA), and various trade exhibitions (including displays of artwork, decorative vases and allegorical sculpture to exude the desired theatrical effect for visitors to his trade display stand), Henry Wellcome and his staff were able to develop their expertise in creating popular, eye-catching exhibits over more than thirty years. They used a live sheep and a tank of living cod fish in the demonstration of lanolin soap and cod liver oil products at the 1896 annual meeting of the BMA. This type of exhibit at once achieved the desired effect of pleasing Wellcome himself, as well as drawing in and amazing an audience.
It was not until the Historical Medical Museum opened to coincide with the arrival of the International Medical Congress in London in June 1913 when Henry’s collection was able to shine on its own. Located at 54a Wigmore Street West in what has been considered by some as London’s medical district, staff working for Wellcome devised a museum not intended for the public and limited admission only to those interested in the study of medical history. “During the Congress, admission was restricted to members of the medical profession. From 1914, members of the public were only admitted in organized groups or with a letter of introduction from a doctor, while women had to be accompanied by a medical man.” (An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World, F. Larson. 2009)
While the museum assisted in gaining Wellcome the academic credibility he worked so hard to achieve, he was not happy with the size or scope of his Wigmore Street establishment. Determined to find a site more fitting of his growing collection and business notoriety during the 1920s, he settled upon a site in Euston Road which then contained the Bureau of Scientific Research and the Museum of Medical Science. Both of these institutions were temporarily relocated and the site cleared to make way for the classical building designed by Septimus Warwick, which still stands today.
By 1932, the building works at 183 Euston Road were complete and while the Bureau of Scientific Research, the Chemical Research Laboratories and the Museum of Medical Science reoccupied the site, Wellcome’s own Historical Medical Museum was yet to relocate owing to a desire for Wellcome to rearrange its layout. Unfortunately, Wellcome was never able to see the finished product of his decades of toil. It was only four years after the Wellcome Research Institution was completed when its founder succumbed to bladder cancer. Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome passed away on 25 July 1936 and his body was laid in state for several days in the auditorium of the institution he had worked so hard to create, and was watched over by some of the museum’s longest serving employees before his transfer to Golders Green Crematorium for an understated funeral service.
The next blog instalment will look at the post-Henry Wellcome era to chart the developments relating to Wellcome’s collection and examine how 183 Euston Road has evolved into the establishment it is today.
Alyson Mercer is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.