The man who for the purposes of this blog is called Barry and I had a curious but rather lovely Saturday. We had hoped to see the morning screening of Frost/Nixon at the London Film Festival. But due to an absence of BFI staff at the cinema, a general air of confusion and a queue full of foot-tapping and frustrated filmgoers (and the fact that it was probably sold out, though no one could actually tell us whether it was or not), we decided to write it off and do something else instead. Something else turned out to be a trip to the Wellcome Collection, which we reached via an interestingly circular trans-Bloomsbury route – a long-cut I think is the term.
The building houses the artefacts collected by the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome, many of which are of a medical nature. Under the banner Medicine Man, the permanent collection contains birthing chairs, Peruvian mummies, Nigerian twin dolls, Charles Darwin’s skull-headed cane and an array of turn of the century bone saws and forceps. There are metal prosthetic noses for the syphilis afflicted and some quite alarming anti-masturbatory devices with the amusing and apt caption ‘probably British’
Much of it is macabre but it’s also utterly fascinating. In the lobby, opposite the café with its nursery school chairs, there’s a display called Make A Piano in Spain. The artist John Newling asked 500 people what they did to make themselves feel better and recorded the responses. Newling created a number of composite situations from these responses, combing the recurring elements in little scenarios that verge on poems. But also, on the day we were there, he was giving a reading through all the responses in order, a three hour undertaking. Visitors to the Collection were encouraged to drift in and out of the room where he was reading.
There was something soothing about hearing these responses in full, the repetition and the banality of the answers. Most people went for obvious things: a glass of wine, cooking a meal for their partner, reading a novel, having a long hot bath, sex, quite a few people said they would choose to do something creative, to write, to play music, to paint; a few seemed acutely aware of letting people know how cool they were: one lengthy comment included listening to ‘trad jazz’ and going surfing – it was the specifics that made me smirk. Some were curt, some ponderous, and though he spoke with the flattest of monotones, a sense of the character of the respondent could be gathered through the way they had phrased things, the words they had chosen. Hearing it, or at least part of it, in this long, flat flow was rather reassuring, I found.