Centuries of Collecting the Curious and Macabre through Digital Storytelling (Hyperallergic)

by Allison Meier on February 26, 2015 original article here.

Anatomical Venus by Clemente Susini from Florence, similar to what was in Joseph Kahn's anatomical museum (1771-1800) (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Anatomical Venus by Clemente Susini from Florence, similar to what was in Joseph Kahn’s anatomical museum. Kahn is featured in Wellcome Collection’s new digital story The Collectors (1771-1800) (courtesy Wellcome Library)

John Tradescant founded Britain’s first museum in the 17th century with a collection of mermaid hands, natural history specimens, and a purported piece of the crucifix. Centuries later, a newlywed paleobotanist named Marie Stopes published her collected knowledge from six months of reading “almost every book on sex in English, French, and German” at the British Museum in the 1918 Married Love. The Collectors, a digital story from Wellcome Collection launched earlier this month, joins both of these stories in an interactive narrative on collecting, curiosity, and access.

Photograph of Marie Stopes in her lab with microscope. (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Photo of Marie Stopes in her lab with microscope. (courtesy Wellcome Library)

The Collectors is the second such digital story from Wellcome, following Mindcraft, which debuted in December with a narrative on medical history, madness, and the history of mind control. Divided into six chapters, The Collectors gives brief portraits of six collectors with stories based in the UK, drawing on objects in the Wellcome Collection and Library, some of which are not on display. Features like video, data visualization, and portals into digitized resources on their stories are embedded in the scroll-down storytelling.

Written by Anna Faherty, the tales of the collectors are unified by their amassment of literature or objects that impacted public knowledge. Faherty stated in her “Why the World Needs Collectors” blog post that she “selected people who tell us something about the power of curiosity or the control of knowledge. Whatever their own motivation for acquiring things, the decisions collectors make about selecting, displaying and caring for objects or data have implications for us all.”

Starting page for Wellcome Collection's "The Collectors (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Starting page for Wellcome Collection’s “The Collectors” (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

For example, there’s haberdasher John Graunt who was the first to tabulate statistics in the Bills of Mortality, revealing the demographics of the 1662 London Plague. His story is accompanied by the eerie sound of the tolling bells summoning the “searchers” — the women who inspected the corpses. Their published macabre findings were, until Graunt, seen primarily as resources for gossip. For the story of John Kahn’s Anatomical Museum, opened in 1873 after most of the London medical museums had closed due to obscenity accusations, ghoulish fleshy noises and the clink of a knife accompany images of an anatomical Venus and dissection models similar to his displays. His actual collection, however, was destroyed after his prosecution under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act.

Both Mindcraft and The Collectors are hosted on a digital interface created by Wellcome Collection in collaboration with the digital agency Clearleft. The platform is a creative way of storytelling that can engage audiences with historic collections through the actual people behind them, while highlighting rarely-viewed objects in a new context.

“The digital stories are part of our ongoing strategy to commission and collaborate on digital projects that enhance Wellcome Collection’s program, and provide curious and intriguing experiences for an audience beyond our physical venue,” Danny Birchall, Wellcome digital manager and executive producer for the digital stories, told Hyperallergic. “We’re less interested in creating ‘virtual versions’ of exhibitions than we are in making digital a meaningful part of the program itself, from participatory social media projects to games and digital art commissions. Often a good digital project takes a spark of inspiration from one part of an exhibition and runs with it in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a physical space.”

Bills of mortality accumulating on a map of London in "The Collectors (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Bills of mortality accumulating on a map of London in “The Collectors” (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

 

Title page to a statistical analysis of mortality for the plague in London of 1665 (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Title page to a statistical analysis of mortality for the plague in London of 1665 (courtesy Wellcome Library)

 

Chapter on "The Curious Gardener" from "The Collectors (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Chapter on “The Curious Gardener” from “The Collectors” (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

 

Ethnographic collection: Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (1955) (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Ethnographic collection: Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (1955) (courtesy Wellcome Library)

 

The Collectors digital story is available at Wellcome Collection.

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