One of the most poignant aspects of the world of inanimate objects is their longevity. They endure, and we do not; they fail to recognise our passing and, to make matters worse, they are unspeaking witnesses that can never tell us what they have seen, who made them and why, who used them and what for, and what they meant.
This book celebrates one of the twentieth century's least known but most mysterious of museum collections. Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936), entrepreneur and businessman, co-founder of Burroughs Wellcome & Co., one of the first giant pharmaceutical companies, was also an archaeologist and philanthropist with an absorbing interest in what he called 'the great past'. His motive in building up one of the world's largest collections of objects - as a whole, it numbers more than one million separate items - was to demonstrate 'by means of objects... the actuality of every notable step in the evolution and progress from the first germ of life to the fully developed man of today'. His aim, in other words, was no less than to trace the history of the human body, in sickness and in health, throughout the whole broad sweep of history.
What were the things he used to illustrate the noble story he wished to tell? He and his agents scoured the whole of the British empire, then at its zenith, and beyond, for anything and everything that relates to the human body. The objects the collection contains range from the very old (Neolithic vessels and Graeco-Roman votive offerings) to the magical and religious (masks and amulets) and the scientific (surgical instruments and microscopes). Their number - thousands of spears, spectacles and pictures; hundreds of manuscripts, syringes and forceps; dozens upon dozens of snuffboxes, anatomical manikins and tattoos - testifies to the one-time ubiquity of what might otherwise be considered rare or arcane objects.
Now dispersed in collections throughout the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe, the Wellcome collection is a vast repository not only of objects, but of traces of physical sensations, ideas and emotions, a reliquary of thoughts and fragments of memory. The soft, fleeting and ungraspable stuff of life is conjured up by matter of an altogether different nature, now lying inert in anachronistic institutions and very slowly turning to dust. It is the residue of a noisy history whose hubbub - breathing, choking, coughing, sneezing, laughing, hiccuping, screaming - is at last stilled.
This book forms a companion volume to the catalogue of an exhibition on Henry Wellcome's collection held at the British Museum in the summer of 2003. The aim of the exhibition was to reunite a fraction of the collection back in one place. The exhibition catalogue endeavours to present the facts of the collection, exploring its objects through documents and physical evidence. Here, in The Phantom Museum, the objects are investigated using a different method, that of the sympathetic imagination.
Although united by their place in Wellcome's collection, many of the objects he amassed are so mysterious as to be inscrutable. Their catalogue remains incomplete; but even the accretions of knowledge that accompany them sometimes awake suspicion. What should we make of the 'gall bladder, stuffed with rice' or the 'amulet for draining milk from cats'? Others are objects on the verge of annihilation: 'Human dust from vaults of St Martin in the Fields found by F. T. Buckland in 1859'. Some of the most mysterious objects now even lack the labels which might once have helped us to decipher them; their meanings have become impenetrable. All of these things have been witness to the lives of the people who have at some point lived alongside them, used them or had them used upon them. How, we wondered on embarking on this book, might we tap into this huge reservoir of lives, this susurrus of experiences, pick up on the faintest of echoes at the end of a long line of Chinese whispers?
Our method was simple. We invited our writers - selected because we felt their hearing might be relied upon to be exceptionally sharp; they would, we hoped, have a particular affinity both with this project and with the collection itself - to tour the biggest remaining group of Wellcome's things, which is housed in a storeroom in West London. We introduced them to the collection and suggested points of interest, but otherwise said as little as possible in order to allow the most direct contact with the objects themselves. And the rest - give or take some occasionally intense discussion - was up to them.
It is worth saying a word or two about the living conditions our objects currently find themselves in. Sequestered in the vaults of what was once the National Savings Bank, Blythe House in Hammersmith, they lie for the most part undisturbed and, as far as we know, mute, guarding their secrets. Dark, cool rooms line the long basement corridors, each crammed with objects and each with a different character. Objects are classified by room - Glassware, Oriental, Surgery - giving rise to a higgledy-piggledy arrangement in which snuffboxes rub shoulders with mourning jewellery, ear trumpets with dentist's chairs and anatomical models with human bones. This sense of disorientation, as well as the sheer iteration which was part of Wellcome's method for imposing order on his objects, has made its way into A. S. Byatt's description of the fictional Eli Pettifer collection in the first story of the book, 'Body Art':
For the modern visitor, much of the poignancy of Wellcome's collection lies in what we know to be the wrongheadedness of many of the treatments represented by the objects. There are bloodletting bowls, bottles of holy water, amulets to cure bronchitis and Goa stones ' made from a paste of clay, crushed shell, amber, musk and resin, and used as antidotes to poisons. Many of them, of course, offered the best odds in a medical science which was full of uncertainty; examining the objects, it is impossible not to feel grateful that we live in a world in which, despite the continuing drawbacks of medicine, many of the diseases and complaints that could spell personal tragedy in the past are treatable as a matter of routine. We have often reflected, too, that, thanks to the mapping of the human genome and the infant science of biotechnology, the medicine of the 21st century will before long seem as outmoded as many of the techniques reflected in Wellcome's things.
'Body Art', however, explores a different aspect of medicine, the capacity of individual doctors to harm and heal. The Hippocratic oath notwithstanding, terrible things have been done in the name of medicine, which may not always have the capacity to set things right. 'Body Art' traces the story of a doctor, Damian, and a young artist, Daisy, and their entanglement, professional and personal. Their path to comfort, healing and transformation lies entirely outside medicine - in art, or in nature itself.
Stacked high upon open shelves, laid out in perspex drawers or carefully wrapped in tissue paper and tucked into boxes, each object in Wellcome's collection has been given an accession number which is both painted on the object (in the smallest of scripts) and written on a slip of card which sits alongside it. This number is the key to accessing all of the recorded information about the object. But its story does not end there. Hari Kunzru's series of evocations, 'The Collected', explores the space between the things' existence as museum objects - only the most recent phase of their rich and varied careers - and their former lives: their spirits. Hari's photographs record their current surroundings - the echoing corridors, the acquisition numbers, the filing cabinets - while his words give voice to the phantom presences that haunt the collection: a shrunken head, a memorial locket enclosing a lock of hair, a fragment of tattooed skin.
It had not, at the outset, been our intention to include non-fiction in this book of imaginative responses to Wellcome's things. But as we pondered what we can know about the past, and the nature of the stories we tell ourselves about what has gone before, it began to seem unreasonable to draw too strict a line between fiction and non-fiction. Our fiction writers, as we know from our extensive exchanges, were priming their imaginations with a thorough grounding in the known facts about their chosen objects ' although very often that knowledge was incomplete, or suffused with an unnerving air of off-the-cuff extemporisation. There seemed to be room for a different approach to Wellcome's objects: to take a discrete group of them, look at the evidence, and simply see where the 'facts' might lead. To our delight, in 'Phantom Limbs or The Case of Captain Aubert and the Bengal Tiger', Gaby Wood chose to look at the poignant world of prostheses ' we, too, had often paused in the Orthopaedics room, with its stack of well-worn arms, legs and crutches, and its distinctive bodily smell, wondering what stories of loss and, we hoped, degrees of recovery might lie behind each of the objects. Gaby's investigation, we feel, combines the strictest historical rigour - in its definition as closeness to the known sources - with the highest degree of sympathetic imagination; and her path leads us straight back to one of the oldest forms of storytelling, the fairytale. Storytelling, after all, is not always about making things up; and some of the best stories are true.
Among the most distant objects in Wellcome's collection, in terms of time, modern medical practice and the ways we now think about our bodies, are the votive offerings. Eyes, hands, breasts, ears, penises and even uteruses, roughly shaped from clay, these were physical lookalikes made to plead with, propitiate or thank the gods that govern the world in sickness and in health. Some of the oldest examples represented in the collection date as far back as the fourth century BC. Their inclusion, in huge numbers, in the collection demonstrates not only Wellcome's determination to chart the science of medicine from its humble beginnings, but also his sympathy with pre-scientific ideas about the body. As a character in Tobias Hill's story - to jump ahead a little - advises one of Wellcome's agents, 'You must buy many things for this history of medicine. Not only medicines. You must buy all the things that people put their belief in.' Helen Cleary has written about a Roman terracotta offering; 'In The Venus Time of Year' juxtaposes a contemporary story with one from the time of the making of her chosen object. Even in a world characterised by flux, some things stay the same: the significance of her object, it turns out, remains unchanged.
From the beginning, we wanted to include the objects themselves - or, to respect the limitations of books, visual representations of them - rather than only words about them. That is why this is an illustrated book, and why the illustrations and the text are so closely entwined. It is also why we wanted to include a graphic short story. In commissioning Peter Blegvad, whose 'Leviathan' series we had long admired, we were also unknowingly harnessing an obsession, as deep as Henry Wellcome's was wide: Peter's contribution, on the subject of milk, draws on a lifetime's reluctant preoccupation with the subject. His method was simply to type 'milk' into the search engines of the Wellcome Library and the Science Museum, and see what happened. The results were dramatic: 'The ground shook, the earth swelled, a geyser gushed forth of matters lactic!' His tour of an imaginary exhibition on the subject of milk, drawn from Wellcome's things, is undertaken in the hope that it will prove purgative: 'I want to be weaned!'
Something that is apt to make any visit to the Wellcome objects in Blythe House a melancholy experience is the consciousness that everything here - including the building itself - is gradually falling into a state of decay. There is, however, a striking exception: a nineteenth-century inductor coil that oozes a hard, honey-coloured slime. In its setting - surrounded by some rather Heath-Robinsonish electrotherapeutic devices - it is so extraordinary as to seem mysteriously, unsettlingly alive. Tobias Hill tells a story about the journey in 1928 on which Peter Johnston Johnston-Saint - one of Wellcome's most faithful agents - acquired the piece.
Given the stubborn, uncommunicative permanence of Wellcome's things, their inscription into beliefs about the body and the world that are now irrecoverably past, their undoubted roles in stories of human suffering, it might have been supposed that the responses we commissioned would have been of a sombre cast. The results, as things have turned out, have been quite the reverse. Rather than a reminder of human suffering and the fact that we, too, must die, this book is full of subtle resolutions, quiet shifts toward the light. We offer it, not as a memento mori, but rather as a monumentum vitae - a memorial to the millions of lives that the objects in the Wellcome's collection have touched (patients, doctors, apothecaries, makers, hawkers...) - with an apology for having taken the liberty of having imagined some of them. We have known all along, after all, that we too must die; what is, as far as we know, far more interesting - where the common ground lies - is that we too are alive. Memento mori, as Latin scholars remind us, has become a noun in English; but it is, of course, really a verbal phrase meaning 'remember to die' or 'remember that you will die'. And so we also proffer, as a motto for this book, the reverse sentiment: memento vivere - remember that you are alive!
Lastly, some thanks. Sharp-eyed readers will note that something that has made its way into more than one of the stories is the figure of a baby - wished-for in Helen Cleary's story, new-born in A. S. Byatt's, and voracious in Peter Blegvad's. These presences perhaps owe something to a hitherto unacknowledged collaborator on this project, Hildi's daughter Sophia, who spent many long and exceptionally good-natured afternoons of her babyhood in the corridors of the Blythe House store. Thank you Sophia.
Our thanks also to Paul Forty at Profile Books and Simon Elliot at Rose Design, both of whom have shown a special empathy with our larger aim: to define a new genre of books exploring the lives that objects have touched by holding them to our ears and seeing what we can hear.
Hildi Hawkins and Danielle Olsen