Museums are well versed in the importance of objects, but those interested in medicine also know how powerful ‘things’ can be. This is especially evident in our Medicine Man gallery, which houses Henry Wellcome’s collection of weird, mundane and wonderful objects used by people to address their health concerns – from amulets containing umbilical cords to forceps and from amputation saws to Yoruba Ibeji figures.
Next door, and available to visit, is our Medicine Now gallery, which is inspired by the broad perspective on medicine that Henry Wellcome had. Few of its pieces link as explicitly to Henry’s collection as ‘Acts of Faith’ by artist Julian Walker, a piece that reminds us that we still rely on objects to make us feel better. On first glance, ‘Acts of Faith’ appears to be made out of teeth, tiny bits of bone or stones, but on closer inspection you might find the word ‘Rennies’. This gives a clue as to what it’s really made from, those very familiar objects we turn to when we are ill or in pain – 1452 pills! They are all everyday over-the-counter tablets and capsules: multivitamins, aspirin, decongestants, supermarket paracetamol, Boots’ indigestion tablets and so on.
You can also decipher the shapes that the pills have been carved into: hands, hearts, intestines, eyes and many other body parts all laid out as a body map. For example, facial features at the top, intestines in the middle and hands either side. Pertinently, ‘Rennies’ can be seen on what looks like a stomach.
Similarly, there are carved representations of body parts laid out like a body map in the Medicine Man gallery. These 4th-2nd century BCE terracotta versions are votive offerings, of which Henry Wellcome collected about 500. Votives like these were left at healing sanctuaries and religious sites as offerings to gods such as Asclepius, the Greco-Roman god of medicine. They were used to invoke a god, saint or spirit to come and cure that particular body part, or to give thanks for having already done so. These votives fit into a broader concept of ‘sympathetic magic’, the premise that we should treat like with like or fight fire with fire. You therefore need a sympathetic representation of the health problem in order to cure it, whether that be a terracotta body part, a mole’s claws for cramp or a Sri Lankan Sanni disease mask that allows the shaman to become a disease-causing demon. This idea is also present in modern homeopathy and in vaccinations, where you receive a small dose of the disease or virus you are trying to protect yourself against.
The votives in Henry’s collection were found in the bottom of a pool in what is now Tuscany, but offerings in a broader sense have existed in many different places in many eras. Medicine Man has some 19th-century Italian ex-voto (‘from a vow’) paintings that were used to thank saints for miracles in a similar way. And in 2011, Wellcome Collection held a whole exhibition on Mexican votive paintings, ‘milagritos’ and amulets from 19th-century London.
But what do these votives tell us? First, they are a great way of informing us about what people worried about, what they knew about the body and what they did about it. The numerous representations of reproductive organs, for example, indicate the centrality of concerns about fertility and the risks of childbirth. Second, they demonstrate the importance of belief in healing and medicine.
So Julian Walker based his ‘Acts of Faith’ piece on this idea of votive body parts by using pills, the contemporary equivalent of an object in which we can place our faith for a cure. Although there is scientific evidence for the efficacy of most of the pills in this piece, the majority of people will have very limited knowledge of that research or the biochemical effects of taking these pills. Walker is therefore suggesting that it is an ‘act of faith’ every time we turn to modern medicine. This is part of a wider statement about the faith we put in doctors, medicine and even science in general, despite not being experts ourselves. Arguably, this is an important part of our overall recovery, as documented by the well-known research on placebos and the positive impact of a reassuring GP. This brings to mind Voltaire’s irreverent quotation that “the art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease”.
Pills are an especially interesting aspect of this as they represent a societal tendency to expect a magic bullet cure for many health problems or a quick fix for pain (e.g. ‘fast-acting pain relief’). The very term ‘painkillers’ implies that pills can completely eradicate pain, when they are typically advised as part of a broader treatment plan. Accordingly, the pills in Walker’s piece are arranged in straight, orderly and evenly spaced lines, comparable to the gathered ranks of an army. It as if these inanimate objects are ready to fight our pain battle for us – reminiscent of the conflict-based language used in painkiller adverts, the media and everyday conversation, whether talking about ‘battling’ germs or ‘fighting’ cancer. Understandably, there has been some controversy about whether it is helpful for patients to talk about their experience in these terms. Interestingly, talk of bacteria and illness as an ‘unwanted intruder’ invading the body is comparable to the way users of the Sri Lankan Sanni disease mask might refer to a disease-causing demon.
The size of the pills echo other amulets and perhaps adds to their potency and talismanic quality; it’s as if their power is more concentrated by being so small. Julian Walker often uses small mundane objects in his work, as can be seen on his website. He describes the pills in this piece as having an ‘individual, precious or jewel like quality’ which reflect the intimate process of individually carving them. This in turn draws our attention to the importance of making our healthcare system more intimate, personal and holistic instead of focusing on specific parts of the body as Western medicine and, paradoxically, votive body parts tend to do.
This understanding of the role of faith in medicine does not undermine the importance of effective medication; Walker’s work lies in poignant contrast to the counterfeit malaria tablets previously on display in the gallery. This reminds us of the difficulty of getting hold of affordable, effective treatment in countries that experience high levels of malaria while people in the UK can get 15p paracetamol from the supermarket. Just as high levels of counterfeit malarial drugs can worsen resistance levels, so too can the over-prescribing of pills in the UK, namely the widespread concern about antibiotics.
The mass availability and consumption of pills highlighted in ‘Acts of Faith’ is interesting in light of the diet pills on display in the Medicine Now gallery. Conceptually, diet pills are a form of consumption being posed as a solution to another type of consumption. In this way, pills are part of the ‘commodification of healing’, particularly if we only ‘consume’ medication or treatment instead of actively participating in the healing process. As Walker puts it, we are “delegating responsibility for the process of healing and maintaining health” and therefore “elevating the manufactured item to the status of the physician” in the way people have always sought help in external things, whether they are objects, technology, gods, shamans or doctors.
Hospitals are increasingly recognising the role of religious, spiritual and personal beliefs in patients’ wellbeing, as evidenced by an increase in the number of multi-faith quiet rooms and NHS-funded homeopathic centres. That faith can operate in a medical environment is clear from the number of prayer requests in a hospital chapel. Research shows this includes prayers from those who would not otherwise engage in the practice. Indeed, it’s also been found that the most common overall cause for prayer is health related. However, it is a different kind of faith that Walker’s ‘Acts of Faith’ refers to, not faith alongside medicine but faith in medicine itself.
Natalie Coe is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection