A new cultural agenda for medicine (excerpt)

bleigiessen-4-steve-speller
‘Bleigiessen’ by Thomas Heatherwick Studio, 2004. Commisioned by the Wellcome TRust.

 

The range and depth of this work has enabled us to approach our aim of engaging the public with medical science from a wide cultural perspective. We are convinced that these sorts of projects provide unique and unpredictable viewpoints from which, not so much to explain, as to inspect, marvel at and challenge biomedical ideas and assumptions, as well as to contemplate their place in culture, society and history. But in themselves, these instrumental aims are not enough. The artworks –and the investigative rigour and experimental energy behind them- need to be judged according to their own intrinsic merits.

This is unquestionably true of Bleigiessen. It also elegantly embodies another of the Trust’s beliefs: that science is part of culture. That is an assertion commonly enough made these days, as experts in the worlds of science, humanities and the arts all strive to make imaginative links between disciplines. But as a philosophy for how the public can engage with science, it has yet to find a substantial high-street home, certainly in London.

This is where our latest public initiative seeks to make a difference. Drawing on our broad historical legacy, as well as our record of linking innovative artistic practice to exciting and contemporary scientific ideas, we will establish a new cultural venue in the first headquarters building created by our founder, Henry Wellcome, at 183 Euston Road, in which medical science (its past, its future and its presente) can be confronted, contemplated and explored.

We are convinced that these sorts of projects provide unique and unpredictable viewpoints from which, not so much to explain, as to inspect, marvel at and challenge biomedical ideas and assumptions, as well as to contemplate their place in culture, society and history.

New cultural venue for medicine

The content of the Wellcome Trust’s new venue will consolidate a decade or more of experimental work in the cultural sphere. Opening in two years, the new spaces will be created within our original headquarters, transformed by Hopkins Architects. Devoted to exploring the science, history and culture of medicine, it will include galleries, the Wellcome Library, a studio theatre space, conference facilities, a café and a bookshop. An expanded temporary exhibition programme will move into a 650m2 ground-floor gallery, to be overseen by the newly appointed curator, James Peto, formerly Head of Exhibitions at the Design Museum. Upstair, we will showcase a new permanent version of the Medicine Man exhibition and an arts-led gallery focused on modern medicine and health.

The venue will also feature a new flexible events space, providing a platform for the Trust to build on its strong record of communicating scientific ideas and issues through participatory drama, with stage-of-the-art facilities for staging discussions, screenings, workshops and debates, as well as a challenging and lively performing arts programme. The upper floors of the building will house the internationally renowned Wellcome Library, the world’s largest devoted to the history of medicine. Incorporating Sir Henry Wellcome’s original library, it includes over 100 000 images and such disparate material as an ancient Egyptian medical prescription, Van Gogh’s only etching, a first edition of Gray’s Anatomy, AIDS campaign posters and the papers of Francis Crick – co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

At a moment when medical science not only stretches our understanding and offers hope for new cures, but also challenges cultural assumptions and our very systems of value, the Wellcome Trust’s new venue will provide the public, students, scientists and the arts community with a much-needed forum for investigation and exchange. We intend to establish it as a dynamic resource that generates ideas, leaving visitors feeling challenged, surprised, informed and eager to find out more.

Drawing on our experience of tapping into new ways of working across disciplines, this venue will place us at the heart of shifting public appetites for bot arts and sciences, adding a vibrant new focus for a culturally rich engagement with health, well-being and medical science.

Ken Arnold

February 2005.

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