Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 13 January 2008

Flights of angels?

If I said "museum of medicine", you'd be thinking pickled body parts in jars and serried ranks of gruesome surgical instruments, no doubt.

But the Wellcome Collection, a recently-opened "white space" in one of those pompous 1920s office buildings on Euston Road, aims at the point where scientific and anthrological understanding of medicine meets the creative imagination. And the results can be quite fascinating.

Their current (until 9 March) exhibition, on Sleeping and Dreaming, takes you through both historic and current knowledge and research on things like sleep deprivation and disorders, hypnosis, narcosis, coma and faints, lullabies, sedatives and stimulants, the social contexts for sleeping, and the physiological and imaginative uses of dreams. The results can be
- entertaining (there is an apparatus for reviving people from unconsciousness by blowing tobacco smoke up their bottoms)
- surprising (apparently, dreams are claimed as the inspiration for the sewing machine, the periodic table, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Goya's Sleep of Reason)
- baffling (Un Chien Andalou is playing on a loop - I'm so disappointed that I managed to miss the eyeball-slicing)
- alarming (on the pressures to be alert and available for work at all hours)
- endearing (there's a case of Japanese aids to napping that includes pillows in the shape of a lady's lap and a gentleman's left arm and torso).

Of course, Shakespeare's Dream isn't overlooked (back to Bottoms again). Freud and his Wolf Man get a mention, but interestingly, there seems to be more about the Sigmund Freud Institute's current research on the physiology of sleep and dreams than on his Interpretation of Dreams.

Upstairs are two permanent exhibitions. One is Medicine Now, a display of current scientific topics (including a complete multi-volume printout of the human genome) and artworks inspired by them - this is Twenty-Three Pairs (of socks) by Andrea Duncan. On the theme of Obesity, there's a case of 600 diet books: you're asked to put them back if you look at them, but no sign that anyone actually has done so.

The other exhibition a sample from the collections of Sir Henry Wellcome (here are the gruesome surgical instruments, also a Chinese torture chair with a seat and footrest of sword blades, both erotic and obstetric models, and a mummified Andean body - so perhaps not the thing for an impressionable child).

It's all free - and there's a rather good café (I began to curse the toughness of the pastry on their pie, till I realised they were using an odd sort of bamboo dish) and bookshop.

Just to avoid any confusions, there is an entirely separate Wellcome Museum of anatomical specimens for professionals only; and if you really want pickled body parts, you could visit the Hunterian Museum.

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