OCLW lunchtime seminar: Frances Larson on ‘The Things About Henry Wellcome’, 10 March 2015

Exploring the miniature, the gigantic and biographies of scale, anthropologist and writer Frances Larson shared her work on Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) from her 2009 book An Infinity of Things with the OCLW lunchtime seminar.

The talk explored Larson’s use of objects as biographical evidence for Wellcome’s life. Her approach was to view Wellcome’s life through these objects, investigating the form they take and how they cohere around a person in groups and sets.

Henry Wellcome was born in America, but came to the UK in his twenties, where he founded the successful pharmaceutical company Burroughs, Wellcome & Company, which later became Glaxo Smith Klein.  At the time, Burroughs, Wellcome & Company manufactured tablets, ointments, soap, tea, coffee and more.

Wellcome was a businessman, designer and inventor, but he was also a private collector of objects. His holdings were the equivalent of five times the size of the Louvre, or approximately one million objects (a lower estimate). The innumerable objects and relics he collected included, among others, surgical instruments, antiques, scraps, ethnographic objects, cases, masks and weaponry.

Wellcome’s whole work life was taken up with the physical design of objects and patterns of scale. Larson is particularly interested in patterns of scale and she divided her discussion of Wellcome’s life into ‘small things’ and ‘big things.’ Larson argued Wellcome’s life as a businessman fall into the category of ‘small things’. She explained that the anthropological associations with small things are control, transcendence, convenience, privacy and magic. One manifestation of this interest in the small is that Wellcome commissioned the world’s smallest medicine cabinet. It was the size of a penny and held twelve bottles of real medicine. Wellcome coined the term ‘tabloid,’ another term for ‘tablet’ or ‘pill’, and spent a lot of time working to make his products smaller. Larson considered whether Wellcome’s personality matched these objects. He was a fastidious person and a controlling and perfectionist employer. Larson proposed that the creation of small, very perfect things might require a fanatical perfectionist. The person and the objects create each other as time goes on.

The second half of the talk focused on Wellcome’s ‘big things’: his enormous collection. In anthropology, big things are associated with the impenetrable, disorientation, being out of control, the public and the frightening. The same characteristics underlie both sides of Wellcome’s life: perfectionism, discipline, control and secrecy.

Wellcome wanted the prestige of being a big collector. He thought there could be a coherent narrative or ‘final picture’ for an unveiling of his collection. But Larson noted that the collection was simply too overwhelming and complex. It was only possible to make the collection coherent after his death when it was broken up.

Wellcome delegated the acquisition of objects to collecting agents, but he didn’t allow them to interpret it. He was not a small-scale collector who simply could not stop. He wanted the collection to be meticulously big and he delighted in the detail. Wellcome thought that he alone could make his enormous collection small and interpret it.

Larson concluded with the question of whether his large collection made Wellcome feel big or small. She argued that he died amongst the chaos of his objects – without achieving his vision of a cohesive exhibition. And although he did open a museum in his lifetime, he never felt it lived up to his vision. Looking at Wellcome through the lens of his collection of objects undercuts the idea of him as a great man.

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