On Friday afternoon I spent a couple of very interesting hours at the Wellcome Collection. Although this is virtually on my doorstep (it is across Euston Road from Euston Station) it was the first time I had been. Based around the artifacts, curios and art collected by Henry Wellcome, the co-founder of the Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical company (now part of GlaxoSmithKline), the Wellcome Collection has been described by Nature magazine as “London’s brave venue where science, art and culture converge”.
Henry Wellcome’s collection (which includes Florence Nightingale’s moccasins, Japanese sex aids, Napoleon’s toothbrush and some alarming medical instruments) forms one permanent exhibition, entitled ‘Medicine Man’. The other permanent exhibition ‘Medicine Now’ features the work of contemporary artists responding to themes in modern medicine such as obesity, genetics and malaria. ‘Medicine Now’ I found a bit hit and miss, but the curiosities in ‘Medicine Man’ are absolutely fascinating.
There are also a couple of temporary exhibitions, linked under the overall title of Miracles and Charms. Infinitas Gracias: Mexican Miracle Paintings is an exhibition of over a hundred ex-votos: small paintings, mainly painted on tin roof tiles, which express the thanksgiving of an individual for divine deliverance from accidents and disease. Painted by local artists, typically they portray the situation for which prayers were sought (for example, one shows a man falling off a ladder after an accident working on electricity cables), incorporating an image of the saint addressed in prayer, and some text which describes the situation. An example is a picture of a car in the middle of a flooding river, with the inscription (translated into English): ‘I thank our Lord Saint Francis of Assisi for saving us from drowning on 27 October 1962. Monterrey, N.L.’
Just as fascinating are the intricate mosaics made up of tiny charms, many depicting parts of the body or traditional lucky symbols, which have been left as an offering in churches, presumably also as a response to answered prayer. As well as displaying the paintings, the exhibition attempts to place them in their cultural and religious context in the two silver-mining communities of Guanajuato and Real de Catorce. A very interesting exhibition which explores the interplay between folk-art and folk-religion.
But if we think that such ‘superstitious’ ideas are confined to other cultures, the other special exhibition Charmed Life: the Solace of Objects reminds us that we also need to look closer to home. Artist Felicity Powell draws inspiration from the collection of amulets and charms collected by the Edwardian amateur folklorist Edward Lovett. According to the leaflet that accompanies the exhibition,
Lovett’s collection offers an insight into a hidden London of around a century ago, and into the lives, hopes and – to an extent – beliefs of people from the poorest parts of the city… Beginning with horseshoes and navigating via sharks’ teeth, a mole in a bag, a sheep’s heart pierced with nails, glass sea horses, coral and more, these objects arranged on the glowing arc of a table are at once baffling, funny, chilling and sometimes prosaic.
The exhibition also includes some of Powell’s own delicate artworks formed from wax.
The question Charmed Life raised in my mind is to what extent charms and amulets are still parts of people’s lives today. And if not, what has replaced them?
Infinitas Gracias: Mexican Miracle Paintings and Charmed Life: the Solace of Objects both run until 26th February 2012. Entrance to the Wellcome Collection is free. There is also a very good Peyton and Byrne coffee shop.