A huge new exhibition – taking over two-thirds of an entire floor at the Science Museum has opened, all about the history of medicine.
Considering that medicine is the treatment of mankind, the exhibition is less about man, than the machines man make to mend men. So expect fewer pills and more machines, fewer studies of the human condition and more strange boxes, and that’s the oddity of modern medicine, that it’s so heavily dependent on machines. From early gigantic wooden boxes that could record the human heart down to the very latest handheld DNA testers.
The display is a merger of two collections, from the Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection brought together to create this single large sweeping history of medical treatments.
Opening with a monumental bronze of a tattooed man, and not at all idealised as ancient statues would have been.
It starts, as all good histories should, in the deep past, a room filled with curious vials and bottles and glasses and so much wood from the time before sanitation. Man is the centre of the universe and treatments tried to understand the perfection of God’s creation.
From the weird electropathic treatments to the discovery of DNA, to a replica of a wonderful looking Victorian pharmacy dating to the times when medications were made locally in the pharmacy rather than sold prepacked in little boxes.
Some of the displays may look familiar, and certainly one zone will look as if it came straight out of the Wellcome Collection in Euston, or the opening credits to American Gods — looks at the pre-science of medical treatments.
Then a burst of light as science and sanitation arrive, in with 1930s cream metal gadgets and away with Victorian wooden boxes. A strange spacecraft hangs overhead, donated by royalty, it’s a light treatment device.
But now we enter the time of plastic and white metal where the gods of sanitation rule over everything and the demon of bacterial resistance lurks in every corner. Man is now a subject to be dealt with by machines that dominate, and man is relegated to the subject, but no more than that. All hail the machine.
Here’s the middle land, where machines start to take over, but are themselves still industrial in appearance, strange mechanical additions to be plunged into mankind and temporarily turn us into hybrid man-machines.
In a curious way, medicine moved from magic through machine and now with the miniaturization of medicine machines, it’s becoming magical again.
We can no longer understand intrinsically what a machine does simply by looking at it – the big wheels and wires and plumbing that crudely replicated man are now reduced to the microscopic world of minute modifications and digital understandings.
It’s a huge exhibition, and one that can either be looked at as a massive display of objects to study, or a sweeping general history of the way man and machine have created medicine. It’s quite wonderful.