Science Museum's New Medicine Galleries Are Just... Wow

Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries ★★★★★

By M@ Last edited 55 months ago

Last Updated 18 November 2019

Science Museum's New Medicine Galleries Are Just... Wow Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries 5

The Science Museum's Medicine Galleries have had a makeover; and it's far more than cosmetic surgery.

"Featuring three thousand objects and covering an area equivalent to 1,500 hospital beds," boasts the gallery's website. That feels like an underestimate. "The size of a small town" might almost be believable. This new space devoted to all things bodily and medical takes up much of the Science Museum's first floor. The transformation, masterminded by WilkinsonEyre architects, includes spaces not previously open to the public.

Those familiar with the venue may remember the previous Medicine Galleries. Perched as an afterthought, in what felt like the museum's attic space, this was an old-fashioned place of aged wooden cabinets, which were themselves something of an exhibit. Quite magical in their own way, but hardly appealing to a diverse, modern audience. The new gallery could not be more of a contrast.

Goes on as far as the eye can see. And that's not even a quarter of it.

It's impossible to fully appraise an exhibition on this scale from one visit. The place is so vast and its treasures so numerous that a decade of perusals might not be enough. You’ll see the world's first MRI machine, the first stethoscope, the first model of a protein and even the first paramedic bicycle, which debuted right here in the streets of London. Or maybe you won't see those because you were sidetracked by the world's first surgical robot, an iron lung, flasks of urine, a walk-in padded cell, 3-D printed prosthetic limbs or a disc of gall bladder stones. What's that hiding in the corner... oh, it's only an entire Victorian pharmacist's shop.

Any given object from the 3,000 has a story to tell. An anonymous looking set of bellows turns out to be a life-saving kit from the River Thames. It was used to pump tobacco smoke into the rectum of a person plucked from the river, as an unlikely way to revive them. Elsewhere, a toad in a jar represents a 19th century form of pregnancy test. The amphibian was injected with urine. If the donor was pregnant, hormones in the urine would stimulate the toad to lay more eggs. Apparently, it worked pretty well.

Some sections of the display are arranged as cabinets of curiosity, with objects from different eras and cultures exhibited side-by-side. The effect reminds me of the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road. That's not coincidental. Most of the objects on show come from the peerless collection of Henry Wellcome, the early 20th century Big Pharma pioneer who spent his life amassing objects of medical interest from all over the world. About half of all visitors to the Science Museum come from outside the UK, so having Wellcome's globe-spanning collection to draw on is a real boon.

Human gall bladder stones. Each smaller circle represents one unlucky individual.

To keep things fresh, the gallery also includes many objects from our own times. The first, unmissable as it greets all visitors to the gallery, is Marc 'head of blood' Quinn's towering sculpture called Self-Conscious Gene. It's one of several artistic commissions dotted through the rooms, including this memorable bronze by Eleanor Crook.

The whole ensemble is staggering both in breadth and volume. It's pretty much a museum in its own right, nested within the wider Science Museum. With a fresh wonder on every sight line, dozens of interactives to explore with the family, and one of the most Instagrammable views in any London museum — you'll want to return time and again. I'll stop right there, lest my gushing need a tourniquet.

Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries is permanently open at the Science Museum from Saturday 16 November 2019. Entrance is free.