I think the Wellcome Collection may be my new favourite place in London. Free entry, wonderful exhibits, killer bookshop, bumped into a good friend who I hadn’t seen in years – what’s not to love?
I would recommend you try and visit in the next month (before 26th February to be precise) in order to catch two exhibitions united under the umbrella title Miracles and Charms. One consists of Mexican ex-votos, or miracle paintings, like the one above. Commissioned by ordinary folk to give thanks to a particular saint or religious figure for their safe delivery from what often seemed to have been a certain fate (encompassing anything from illnesses and rail crashes to violent burglars and firing squads), the style of the paintings is deliciously naive, and on this evidence have scarcely improved in two centuries. Their popularity seems to be on the wane nowadays, with more informal handwritten offerings made instead in even greater numbers – exemplified by the riotous assembly below.
With all of this having put ideas of a trip to Mexico into my head (stoked further by Martin Parr’s book of dizzyingly technicolour photos of the country on sale in the bookshop outside) I didn’t fancy the chances of the counterpart exhibition being able to hold my attention. I needn’t have worried. A combination of the subject matter (amulets and charms from the collection of pioneering folklorist and Surrey resident Edward Lovett), exhibition design (by artist Felicity Powell, who juxtaposes some of her own work with the objects), and the good fortune to visit on an afternoon when a free guided tour was being laid on, left me engrossed. Lovett was acquiring the amulets from across London (especially in the East End) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but what struck me most was the occurrence (or recurrence) of objects that had very similar meanings in the prehistoric, Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods: stones with holes in, fossil sea urchins, cowrie shells. There seems to have been quite a trade in Edwardian England in window blind cords ending in acorns, a motif that originated in the story of Thor taking shelter beneath an oak tree during a thunderstorm. It is the temporal depth of the types of items on display, as well as the items themselves, that make it so thought-provoking from a medieval – or simply historical – perspective.