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