Thursday, February 10, 2022

Curiosity Cabinet

This volume of stories, texts, and illustrations was published by Profile Books in 2003. For a while it seemed to have become scarce, but it's relatively easy to find now.

The Wellcome Collection is (or was) a vast assemblage of objects related to the history and anthropology of medicine. As one might expect, many of the objects are gruesome or bizarre. Henry Wellcome, who amassed the objects, died in 1936, and after his death much of the collection was apparently dispersed, though some of its holdings became accessible to the public in 2007. The editors explain the concept:
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 catalog 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.
Each of the six pieces in the volume is inspired by one or more of the Wellcome's objects. A. S. Byatt is the most familiar name among the writers. Peter Blegvad contributes an unclassifiable piece, but my favorite is a deft short story entitled "The Venus Time of Year," which follows two women, one modern and one in Roman Britain, who both have recourse to votive offerings in the form of a fertility figurine. Admirably, it doesn't try to do too much or look too far ahead in the women's lives. Of the author, the back flap notes, "Helen Cleary lived in Singapore, Wales and East Anglia before moving to London. She is working on her second novel and writes non-fiction for the BBC History website."

Oddly, I've found no evidence that either of the two Helen Cleary novels mentioned was ever published, nor any indication that she has published any additional fiction. She didn't disappear; she apparently has contributed to several documentaries and reference books.

In conjunction with the British Museum show, the Quay Brothers released an eccentric short documentary about the collection, which is also entitled The Phantom Museum.

No comments: