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25/10/2014

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Medicine Now

Abigail Woods discovers a hidden message

Medicine Now is one of two permanent galleries at the Wellcome Collection. Visitors expecting to see an exhibition of cutting-edge 21st century medicine will be disappointed. Instead, they will encounter ‘a range of ideas about science and medicine since Henry Wellcome’s death in 1936.’ With some objects – like the wax models of disease-carrying insects – deriving from an even earlier period, Medicine Now is a curious title. What is its rationale, and what are the key messages of this exhibition?

Visually exciting

The straightforward answer to these questions is that Medicine Now complements the other permanent exhibition, Medicine Man, which displays objects from the collection of Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Trust. It focuses on four topics: malaria, obesity, the body and genomes.  Each is addressed through an ‘art cube’ containing artistic exhibits, interactive ‘sound chairs’ that offer recorded commentaries, and floor to ceiling displays of objects, literature and film. There is also a large browsing area containing more interactive exhibits.

The strength of the exhibition lies in its sensory appeal. While textual commentary is fairly limited, its exciting visual displays entice the visitor. Entering from the stairwell, one encounters a grossly swollen torso depicting obesity, a collection of 600 diet books illustrating the modern obsession with weight loss, a cabinet full of anti-malarial drugs, and a life-size, transparent model of the human body.

Messages incoherent

The problem is that none of this adds up to a clear story about Medicine Now. We are not told how or why the curators plucked their four themes out of the vast field of medicine. Malaria and obesity are important diseases of the developing and developed world respectively, but why choose them, and not diarrhoea and cancer? The sequencing of the human genome is not the only significant, controversial development in modern medicine. ‘The body’ actually refers to advances in the imaging of the body. Why include this and not the associated advances in surgery?

Even within each theme, the message is not immediately apparent. The curators have tried to explore the social as well as the scientific implications of each theme, and to present the perspectives of patients as well as scientific and medical experts. While this is very praiseworthy, the result is a series of snapshots, not a coherent story.

Underlying aim

Only by digging a little deeper does the point of this gallery and its curious title become clear. Time and time again, the descriptions of exhibits refer to Wellcome Trust funding. Malaria, obesity, imaging and the genome have all attracted substantial investment. Many of the art works derive from Wellcome Trust-funded projects, as do some of technologies and educational tools displayed.

Is the exhibition’s real aim to showcase the results of Wellcome Trust-funded research, and to celebrate the Trust’s contribution to the science and art of medicine, now? The website of the PR company that managed the Collection’s 2007 opening suggests that it is. It states that the opening ‘required delicate handling to ensure it was viewed as part of the Trust’s wider mission of funding biomedical research into human health and disease as well as attracting culture seekers and family visits.’1

It is not really surprising that an exhibition funded by the Wellcome Trust aims to showcase Wellcome Trust-funded research. So why doesn’t it say so openly? And what difference would this make to the way that visitors engage with the exhibition?  The display of postcards they have produced shows that the gallery attracts a diverse audience. But if that audience is to leave with a clear message and an in-depth understanding of Medicine Now, it needs to be informed of the exhibition’s underlying aim.

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Dr Abigail Woods
Dr Abigail Woods, senior lecturer in the history of medicine, Imperial College London
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