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Collecting Mesopotamia in Henry Wellcome's Historical Medical Museum

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In 1913, pharmaceuticals entrepreneur Henry Wellcome opened the Historical Medical Museum in London to display his vast collection of medically related objects. The Museum presented the progress of medicine from ancient times to the present day. Its displays traced modern medicine’s roots back to several ancient civilizations, including Mesopotamia as well as Greece and Rome. Literate civilization flourished in Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylonia)—geographically now modern Iraq—from c.3500–75 BCE . My talk explores how the Historical Medical Museum collected and displayed its own particular version of Mesopotamia, manipulated to fit its own display narrative.

Wellcome’s staff purchased a variety of original objects and also commissioned copies from other collections. Purchasing material without reading the original ancient languages, however, proved a challenge; when no expert could be found to examine them, the Museum relied on aesthetics alone. Consequently, a large number of texts unrelated to medicine entered the collection, including over 250 ancient receipts for buying grain and sheep. The museum also invested in copying objects, which provided them with new opportunities. Copies were fashioned for maximum impact on display: small artefacts were super-sized, new representations were hybridized from original sources, and three-dimensional Babylonian statues were created anew from two-dimensional originals.

The Historical Medical Museum provides a case study of how archaeological artefacts were collected by non-expert staff and displayed for non-specialist audiences. Following the ‘life histories’ of Mesopotamian objects in Wellcome’s collection also sheds light on the role played by archaeological collections in history of medicine in the early twentieth century.

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