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With only the entry stair still to come, the Reading Room at the Wellcome Collection will be able to be many different things

Is it a museum, archive or chill-out zone?  All three, as it happens.
Is it a museum, archive or chill-out zone? All three, as it happens. · Credit: Hugh Pearman

This is a very pleasing ‘what-if’ space, part of the expansion of the popular Wellcome Collection on London’s Euston Road.  Architect and designer AOC, working within a £17.5m plan by Wilkinson Eyre for this museum of medical history, has devised a space that is part exhibition, part library, part lounge, part research archive. It will be open to the public from February: although it is near-complete in itself, it awaits completion of a new spiral stair to connect it to the rest of the building. 

In fact, the Wellcome Collection as a client seems remarkably curious and relaxed about just what the public use of this new ­facility will be, how many will find their way there, and what uses will be found for it: performance being one possibility.  ‘The nature of its use will be left unprescribed,’ they say.  AOC has an idea, though, having conducted a series of public workshops using items from the museum’s collection.  AOC director Geoff Shearcroft remarks that his practice was ­inspired by early photos of the space as a hall of statuary collected by the obsessive pharmaceuticals pioneer Henry Wellcome: something of the quirkiness of Wellcome comes through in this rethought space, not least his facial profile, used for timber mouldings. His patent pills are present, too, as bronze feet for the specially-designed reference tables.

  • Dentistry by gaslight, from the 1920s.
    Dentistry by gaslight, from the 1920s. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Fearsome early body scanner – and some nice furniture.
    Fearsome early body scanner – and some nice furniture. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • The Wellcome Collection is admirably open-minded about how people will use this space.
    The Wellcome Collection is admirably open-minded about how people will use this space. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Stairs to nowhere - with no link to the library above, the stairs become informal auditorium seating with nice cushions.
    Stairs to nowhere - with no link to the library above, the stairs become informal auditorium seating with nice cushions. · Credit: Hugh Pearman

In one corner you will find a reproduction of Freud’s couch, near a coatstand of straitjackets. There is a fearsome 1920 dentist’s station, an early scanning X-ray machine, a set of the children’s game ‘Operation’, ­contemporary art interventions and – in this room of 100 objects and 1,000 books – just one large interactive screen, on which you can dissect bodies, mummies and suchlike with a swipe of your finger. Different areas – Alchemy, Travel, Body, Breath, Face, Pain, Mind, Lives, Faith – are given subtly different design treatments and furniture. Upholstery fabric uses a 1951 Festival of Britain wallpaper design based on the Insulin cell: in fact there’s something of a 1950s semi-­domestic feel to the whole place.    

It’s rare for a cultural institution to come up with such an open brief: the result is both playful and learned. If the Ercol furniture is too formal, you can lounge on big cushions on the red-carpeted stairs: no longer a route to the library above, instead they become a kind of amphitheatre