MEDICAL displays aren’t always the biggest attraction at museums. The sight of rusty amputation saws or devices for inexplicable procedures is enough to have most adults heading straight for the knitting and needlework section. They don’t have to be like this, though.
I used to think the finest example must be the Hunterian Museum in London. Being located in the middle of the Royal College of Surgeons, which unfortunately is undergoing a major renovation, means it won’t be open again until next year.
Malaysia provided a ground-breaking alternative in 2019. Al-Tibb: Healing Traditions in the Islamic World at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia provided almost a year of insights but is over now.
The catalogue is still a treasure store of information and images, much of which was the result of collaborating with Wellcome Institute — one of the UK’s greatest contributions to medical knowledge. For those who want to view Islamic healing in the flesh, so to speak, some of the exhibits are on permanent display in Taman Tasik Perdana.
In the meantime, the Science Museum has opened a new gallery, which turns out to be the largest of its type in the world. With the assistance of the Wellcome Institute, once again, there is still some of the chill factor although the squeamish can avoid anything too nightmarish. Children don’t seem to mind the reality of human anatomy as much as adults. It’s easy to distract them anyway.
At the entrance is the largest indoor sculpture I’ve ever seen. I’m not entirely sure what its purpose is, apart from distracting young visitors from some of the anatomical waxworks that are located nearby.
The statue, The Self-conscious Gene, is by Marc Quinn. When you look at it carefully, it becomes clearer that this is a giant with tattoos; potentially as frightening as the waxworks although somehow it isn’t. It’s actually quite fun if you ignore the ink, and we should be grateful that Quinn hasn’t repeated his usual specialty — sculpture made from his own frozen blood.
Most of the displays are more informative than The Self-conscious Gene. This is a learning experience, and I have to say there were a lot of probable medical students doing the rounds when I visited. A number of them looked like they might even be from Malaysia. There are certainly a lot of Malaysians at Imperial College just down the road.
The globalism of this London neighbourhood, and of medicine in general, is reflected in the displays. The grim stuff at the entrance to the gallery consists mostly of home-grown horrors.
Once you’ve got past them, you can relax a bit and look at medical solutions from every part of the world. This is a huge relief for art lovers, who can easily be diverted from the simulated operating theatre to look at objects with healing powers from every culture.
The variety of sculptures is stunning, with something from every major belief system that I can think of, except Islam and Judaism. Muslims and Jews have always preferred to focus on the message more than the medium, especially if the medium is a three-dimensional humanoid.
Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Taoists, Jains and the innumerable tribal faiths of the planet have resorted to ingenious sculptural forms to provide some comfort in their distress, or to ward off imminent danger.
Some of the most touching items are the ex-voto offerings made to deities in gratitude for a swift recovery. Mexico has a massive number of these, but the most eye-catching in the new gallery are from 18th century Italy.
One in particular seems to be a thank you for relief from a dog bite. Another one shows evil spirits being expelled, which was a common obsession in the past. Blessing someone after sneezing is a relic of those times when it was thought that demons were got rid of in coughs and sneezes.
There are items from the Islamic world in the gallery, although there could have been more, considering the debt that’s owed to Muslim medical writers and practitioners. Among the inevitable objects are albarello jars. Used by apothecaries, they originally came from the Middle East. The shape is the most distinctive thing about them; they’re waisted in the middle to make them easier to grasp from shelves full of jars placed so close to each other it’s hard to grip them.
Most of the displays show the international nature of medicine. There are items from as far apart as China and South Africa. It is one field where thinking is often similar and collaboration has been more noticeable than in, for example, warfare.
Some of the most moving displays do relate to warfare — from a purely medical point of view. The surgery in the First World War trenches that has been re-created here could be from any of the sides involved. The effect is no less chilling.
Combat has seen some of the greatest advances in medical science as well as huge quantities of human misery. Even as an onlooker, we can ease off on the panic slightly when we catch sight of anaesthetics and major painkillers such as morphine.
Nothing brings people together better than a global pandemic. The timing of this new display is perfect. As we might be heading for a health crisis at the moment, it’s worth a visit to ‘Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries’. Only by knowledge and cooperation can viruses be combated. Looking at the history of medicine is a good start.
Follow Lucien de Guise on Instagram @crossxcultural