Beth Hopkins has recently completed the Step Up Interpreting Collections course at the Wellcome Collection. This week on the blog she tells us about her research topic and her experience of the Step Up training..
Are you superstitious? Do you carry something for good luck? The Wellcome Collection has a wonderful set of tiny amulets, which are traditionally believed to protect from illness and injury. From a black paper cat carried by a soldier in World War One, to a selection of Roman phallic amulets for fertility – the range of these unique items was astounding.
The Wellcome has been my favourite museum in London for several years, so taking part in Step Up, Interpreting Collections was a real privilege. As part of the course, we were able to view the museum out of hours, use their library and – most excitingly – visit their archives in Blythe House, Kensington. It was also fantastic to meet all the Wellcome staff who make everything happen behind the scenes.
I was drawn in by the amulets exhibited in Medicine Man – they were some of the smallest items in the collection but also the most compelling. I liked that they would have been worn close to the skin or carried in pockets, and were quite tactile and comforting. They also hold a kind of mysterious power for the people who owned them. For example, there is a hand amulet believed to protect from the evil eye (a belief that certain people can cause you harm simply by looking at you with evil intent). Amulets were an incredibly popular type of folk medicine before the advent of widespread scientific medicine.
There were also amulets in the Reading Room on the top floor of the Wellcome Collection. There was a glass seahorse made in Venice which when worn on the breast was believed to stimulate milk flow in breastfeeding. There was also a pair of mole’s feet believed to protect against cramp and toothache. In the archives I discovered a badger’s nose which was carried by an old man to prevent attacks by mad dogs! During my research I began to realise I had similar amuletic objects at home – so I gathered them together in a tin as my own collection.
I decided to machine embroider my own collection of amulets that could be touched and handled (as opposed to being behind glass in the museum). I hoped that being fabric they would be quite tactile and comforting. Among the many amulets, I included acorns which protect against lighting, dog’s teeth to protect against tooth ache and a silver fish to protect children from drowning.
It was great to work alongside Yvonne Foster and Jackie Bennett, my fellow artists on the course (you can read their earlier posts on the Outside In blog). We supported each other through the process, particularly on the final session, when we delivered the findings of our research to the Wellcome staff. For me this was nerve wracking as I have never delivered a formal presentation before! But the feedback and enthusiasm of our audience made it all worthwhile.
I can’t thank Outside In enough for this wonderful opportunity – it has changed the way I view museums and given me the confidence to research any subject I choose. I have been writing in more detail about the Wellcome on my blog throughout the process, which you can read here.