I found myself yesterday at the Wellcome Collection, one of my favourite museums in London and somewhere I visit reasonably frequently (not being too big, and conveniently located on the Euston Road, it’s perfect to fill those odd hours between the end of the hangover and the train back to Manchester). The permanent exhibition has a couple of things that I could happily go and see again and again, but it’s the temporary ones that are the real draw – and the current one, Exquisite Bodies, is something I’d thoroughly recommend.
In the 19th century, despite the best efforts of body snatchers, the demand from medical schools for fresh cadavers far outstripped the supply. One solution to this gruesome problem came in the form of lifelike wax models. These models often took the form of alluring female figures that could be stripped and split into different sections. Other models were more macabre, showing the body ravaged by ‘social diseases’ such as venereal disease, tuberculosis and alcohol and drug addiction.
It’s these waxworks on which the exhibition primarily focuses – and they are remarkable. Joseph Towne’s models, made for teaching purposes at Guy’s hospital, are more than just educational tools: they’re works of art in their own right, the clear ancestors of work by Ron Mueck. The exhibition has clear echoes, too, of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds shows, and of the Spectacular Bodies show at the Hayward Gallery a few years ago.
Some of the works on show would be used as devices to educate not just medics, but also the general public, about their bodies – they would be shown at fairs, and used for public “dissections” (with men and women being admitted to separate shows, of course…). Representations of the effects of VD seem to have been popular – and, let’s face it, we know why: there’s the same ghoulish attraction today. Perhaps that’s why some of the exhibits are behind a curtain, and why the show’s not recommended for under-18s.
For myself, these worries seem to be unjustified. There was a couple of children there with their parents yesterday, and there’s nothing that’d worry me were my hypothetical children to see it; as a poster advertising a “dissection” in Boston, Lincs, points out – to the enquiring mind, there should be no taboo; facts are facts are facts. Besides: if it’s images of genitalia that you want, diseased or otherwise, my guess is that a serious-minded museum isn’t going to be your first port of call. Under-18s with access to Google know that, too…