Museums - Lisa Jardine welcomes the revival of a dauntingly large collection of medical artefacts

Shortly after Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753, an article in the London Magazine eulogised the generosity with which the former president of the Royal Society had made his vast private collection of natural curiosities and scientific and medical rarities available to the general public:

These treasures, tho' collected at his private expense, have not been appropriated to his own pleasure alone. Mankind has enjoyed the benefits of them, and his noble mind never suffered him to refuse their use to whoever at home or abroad was desirous of satisfaction or improvement from them.

Bequeathed to the nation, Sloane's "musaeum" - judged at the time to be "the most valuable private collection that ever yet has appeared upon the earth" - became the stunning public resource we now know as the British Museum. This year, the British Museum is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the death of its founder, and the year in which it came into existence. By donating his collection to the nation, Sloane fulfilled the wish he declared on his death-bed, that "his name, as the collector of it, should be preserved to posterity".

The London Magazine's description of the passionate commitment of the millionaire collector, and the scale and knowledge-building aspirations of his collection, might equally well be applied to Henry Wellcome, the charismatic pharmaceuticals entrepreneur and philanthropist of the 19th and 20th centuries. Fittingly, a new exhibition at the British Museum brings together a selection from the myriad items that Wellcome acquired from all over the world, allowing us at last to understand their real diversity and importance.

Wellcome, like Sloane, made his fortune in pharmaceuticals (Sloane invented milk chocolate, to be drunk as a remedy for all kinds of stomach ailments). Like Sloane, too, Wellcome was bitten by the collecting "bug" from his youth - he was addicted to the purchasing of suitable specimens, and poured huge amounts of his wealth into doing so. Yet, in stark contrast to Sloane, the objects Wellcome so avidly assembled over his lifetime have since been dispersed and neglected. Parcelled out at his death in 1936 to museums and organisations across the world, many of them have languished in basements, uncatalogued and largely ignored. Wellcome's name remains familiar from the pharmaceuticals company that made his millions, but his collections have been almost entirely forgotten.

In building up one of the world's largest museum collections, Wellcome's aim was to demonstrate "by means of objects . . . the actuality of every notable step in the evolution and progress from the first germ of life up to the fully developed man of today". It was also to enable the study of "the continuous perils and ravages of disease encountered in the battle of life". So, in Wellcome's own mind, his collections were broadly of medical and ethnographical interest. The problem was their daunting scale. He bought compulsively in any category - thousands of spears, hundreds of votive offerings and masks, artificial limbs by the rackful, row upon row of obstetrical forceps. So vast was the number of specimens that any intellectual purpose was ultimately blurred. By the time he died, Wellcome's warehouse-loads of exotica were too overwhelming to contemplate.

Now, in one of the most fascinating exhibitions of medical and ethnographical artefacts I can remember, Ken Arnold and Danielle Olsen have brought Wellcome's forgotten museum vividly back to life. The metaphor of resurrecting or reviving is peculiarly appropriate here. It is the ingenuity and mental energy that Arnold and Olsen have lovingly invested, over a period of years, in devising an idea-shaping framework within which to arrange their choice of Wellcome's varied objects that gives those objects back their meaning and their ability to challenge the way we think about ourselves.

In the first room, six selected objects are isolated in glass cabinets. We sit in front of them and are offered, via an audio guide, three different, individualised responses to each object - an artist's view, an expert's view, a critic's view. In the last room, a film by the Brothers Quay, inspired by Wellcome's collection, plays in continuous loop. Here, the objects they have eerily animated serve as visual starting points for the human imagination. That theme continues in an elegantly produced volume of short stories inspired by objects from the collection, and in the arresting "tabloid" format guide to the exhibits.

A brass corset, a box of artificial coloured-glass eyes, a 17th-century posset pot and a pair of tiny Chinese shoes for bound feet displayed together ask us to think about the ways we administer "remedies" to what we consider deficiencies of the human body. A case filled with artificial limbs - the earliest made around 1580 - has a macabre fascination beyond the pragmatic ingenuity of the objects.

When Sloane heard that James Petiver had died, in 1718, he rushed to purchase Petiver's natural history collection from his widow. No matter that he had long ago run out of display space, and many of the packing cases lay in his storerooms, never to be unpacked - he simply had to have it. Today, the apparently serenely timeless galleries of the British Museum seem a world away from Sloane's passionate eccentricity. This wonderful exhibition of Henry Wellcome's treasures reminds us that every museum is, in the end, the creation of the eccentric collectors and inspired curators who give us access to its contents.

"Medicine Man: the forgotten museum of Henry Wellcome" is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1 (020 7323 8299) until 16 November

Lisa Jardine's most recent book is On a Grander Scale: the outstanding career of Sir Christopher Wren (HarperCollins)

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