In 1880 Henry Wellcome left his home in America to start a pharmaceutical business in Britain with fellow American Silas Burroughs. The commercial success of Burroughs Wellcome & Co meant that the young Henry was able to truly begin to combine his passions for scientific research, and cultural collection. His vast collection of books, scientific instruments, paintings and a number of other fascinating objects grew and grew, culminating in his decision to purchase a property on Euston Road in 1930. In 1932 two of his research laboratories, two museums and his library were moved into what was then called the Wellcome Research Institution. Last Friday a host of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed UCL Publishing MA students had the privilege of exploring what is now the Wellcome Collection and its unique book related spaces.
It may seem curious for a man whose commercial industry was devoted to pharmaceutical pursuits to have been deeply passionate about art and literarute, yet Wellcome was a man who appreciated the multifaceted beauty of life, someone who saw science and art as natural complements, not unrelated pursuits. His unique perspective has led to the creation of one of the most unique reading spaces I have ever had the pleasure of visiting – the Wellcome Collection’s reading room.
THE READING ROOM
The Wellcome Collection’s website describes the reading room as ‘an innovative hybrid of gallery, library and events space […] designed to encourage you to indulge your curiosity and explore more than ever before.’ Upon first entry this motivation is perhaps unclear as your vision is overwhelmed by the array of colourful and eclectic objects before. Yet as you being to explore the room its intricate detail unfolds and the inspiration for this unique space slowly becomes clear. The underlying purpose of our visit to the Wellcome Collection was to question how physical environments influence the way books are used and purchased, and the reading room provides an exceptional example for reimagining the way we think about the book.
The reading room functions successfully as a library, but only if we rethink what the purpose of a library is; Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading (1997) stated, ‘…every library tyrannize the act of reading, and forces the reader – the curious reader, the alert reader – to rescue the book from the category to which it has been condemned’. Manguel’s derisive tone is perhaps caused by a sense of distaste for the unimaginative categorization of books most libraries adhere to. Library catalogues present neat solutions for the search of specific books, thus implying a sense of premeditation in their readers. The Wellcome Collection’s reading room throws this model out of the window. The books are indeed ‘categorized’, but in the more conceptual categories of things like ‘pain’, ‘body’, and ‘breath’. Moreover, these sections are full of surprising, and sometimes downright confusing, collections of books.
For example, I stumbled upon Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in the ‘body’ section, settled snuggled against an anatomical encyclopaedia. This curious selection prompted me, as I’m sure it would many readers, to make use of the reading room’s companion book, detailing and explaining each object and text in the space. The book was written by Anna Faherty who is also responsible for the selection of half of the titles available for perusal, and all of the reading room’s fiction titles – building upon Wellcome’s invested interest in combining scientific knowledge and artistic endeavour.
There is more delight to be found in the reading room beyond interesting book choice. The room itself hosts an enormous collection of enigmatic and exciting objects, encouraging an interactive experience alongside your reading. From a vast display of paintings, to straight jackets, to a stethoscope, the space is full of curious artifacts for you to admire, analyse, or pick up and engage with.
The overall purpose of the space seems to be to encourage readers to play, to explore, and to discover interesting texts or pieces of knowledge throughout their journey. My immediate reaction to the reading room was that it felt like tumbling down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland, into a world of curiosity and excitement. In our increasingly digital existences a space that put such emphasis on physicality – on exploring through touch, sight, and smell – yet which also seemed entirely out of the spheres of commodity or commerciality, was refreshing and exciting. The experience of that space reignited a passion for the physical book, and reawoke the curious reader in me, the reader who wanted to explore the world of literature with no immediate goal. Whether intentional or not, this encouraged the desire to own a new and interesting book – making the Blackwell’s bookshop on the bottom floor of the Wellcome Trust a perfect partner to its reading room.
… not specifically related to a reading space, but the Wellcome Collection also houses a beautiful looking kitchen next to the reading room (decorated with what must be the coolest combination of fashion and pharmacy in existence), and a lovely cafe downstairs!
“Virtually all unplanned purchases – and many planned ones too – come as a result of the shopper seeing, touching, smelling or tasting something that promises pleasure” Underhill, P. (1999) Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. New York: Simon and Schuster
In many ways the Welcome Collection’s bookshop is like the countless other Blackwells or Waterstones you may stumble upon, with its genre categorization and 2-for-1 book deals. But in subtle ways it has been curated exactly towards the kind of consumer who would have spent time out of their day sitting in and exploring the reading room. The emphasis on physicality is continued, with an enormous display of knick-knacks and physical objects, and the book selections themselves come with categories less common to your commercial bookstore like ‘learning for life’, where all of Freud and Nietzsche can be found.
Similarly its contemporary selection is distinctly ‘literary’, the Fifty Shades of Greys and cheap thrillers take a backseat to the incredible (and often prize winning) literary fiction published in recent years, from David Mitchell to Ali Smith. This Blackwells is unique in its habits, as it (as stated on the company’s website) ‘[complements] the themes explored in Wellcome Collection, and [curates] a selection of books to accompany each new temporary exhibition.’ They are undoubtedly building upon a sense of trust in taste, which the reading room has undoubtedly produced in visitors.
Ultimately it is the joy of reading, of finding pleasure in both object and story, which the reading room charmingly draws out, that made the bookshop seem so enticing – the two environment, with too seemingly disparate aims, work harmoniously with each other to create a memorable and enjoyable experience for the reader and potential book buyer.