Wellcome Collection

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What it means to be human

Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, NW1

Wellcome Collection section called The Body
One gallery of this styl­ish muse­um is devot­ed to the human body

This is one of London’s most impres­sive inde­pen­dent muse­ums and the wealth of the char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion behind it is every­where evi­dent: in the qual­i­ty of the per­ma­nent and tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tions, in the styl­ish sur­round­ings and in the free admis­sion.

Hen­ry Solomon Well­come was born in a Wis­con­sin log cab­in in 1853, sub­se­quent­ly trekking with his fam­i­ly to Gar­den City, Min­neso­ta. While work­ing in his uncle’s drug­store at the age of six­teen, Hen­ry launched his first prod­uct, an invis­i­ble ink (actu­al­ly lemon juice) that he mar­ket­ed under the ques­tion­able brand name ‘Ku Klux’.

The young entre­pre­neur moved to Eng­land in 1880 and, with fel­low Amer­i­can Silas Bur­roughs, built one of the most suc­cess­ful phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies of the age, pri­mar­i­ly by cor­ner­ing the Euro­pean mar­ket for ‘com­pressed med­i­cine tablets’ and pro­mot­ing the prod­ucts with cut­ting-edge sales and mar­ket­ing tech­niques.

Hen­ry Well­come spent much of his for­tune amass­ing a vast col­lec­tion of anthro­po­log­i­cal relics and arte­facts and in 1911 he opened a ‘his­tor­i­cal med­ical muse­um’ next door to his company’s show­room in Wig­more Street.

The muse­um moved to its present site on Euston Road in 1932 but it was not until the build­ing was rad­i­cal­ly revamped in 2007 that the col­lec­tion final­ly gained a wor­thy home. Even now, only a tiny frac­tion of Well­come’s trea­sure trove can be dis­played; by the time of his death in 1936 he had acquired about 1½ mil­lion objects. His will pro­vid­ed for the cre­ation of the Well­come Trust, which funds sci­en­tif­ic research and lob­bies on health pol­i­cy issues inter­na­tion­al­ly, as well as sup­port­ing the muse­um. The trust’s invest­ment port­fo­lio is present­ly val­ued at around £18 bil­lion.

The Well­come Collection’s per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tion is Med­i­cine Man, a cross-sec­tion of remark­able objects from the philanthropist’s stock­pile, rang­ing from diag­nos­tic dolls to Napoleon’s tooth­brush. Many of the walls are crammed with works of art.

There are fre­quent and free guid­ed tours and wide­ly var­ied spe­cial exhi­bi­tions. See the What’s On sec­tion of the Well­come web­site for details. This is one of the few Lon­don muse­ums to offer late night open­ing (on Thurs­days). There’s also a well-stocked book­shop (a branch of Black­well’s) and a classy café that’s enjoyed by in-the-know office work­ers as well as vis­i­tors to the col­lec­tion. The Well­come Collection’s pop­u­lar­i­ty has recent­ly prompt­ed the cura­tors to add more space and facil­i­ties.

Wellcome Collection images, including the the Medicine Man permanent exhibition and the bookshop and café

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
Phone: 020 7611 2222
Website: Wellcome Collection
Open: Tuesday–Sunday 10.00am–6.00 pm (Thursdays until 10.00pm); bank holidays noon–6.00pm
Admission free
Nearest stations: Euston (Victoria and Northern lines, and London Overground and National Rail); Euston Square (Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith and City lines)
NearbyGrant Museum of Zoology