What it means to be human
Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, NW1
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.