Catching up on some articles I meant to blog but didn’t get round to at the time, this is a review by Christopher Turner of An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected The World by Frances Larson. It’s stunning when you realise the scale of Wellcome’s lifetime of compulsive collecting: “By the 1930s more than a million archaeological artefacts, ethnographic specimens and objects pertaining to medical history were jam-packed in warehouses all over London.”
This was all funded by a business which sold dietary supplements in tablet form, with machines that could produce 600 pills a minute, 10 every second, in the late 19th century. Wellcome had staff all over the world who collected objects for him and shipped them back to London.
I still can’t get my head round the size of the collection. After Wellcome’s death, much of it was sold off in twenty-seven auctions. “Among these bits and pieces was a small armoury: thousands of weapons were given away or sold, and more than six tons of shields, helmets, spears and guns carted away as scrap.” Six tons of weapons alone!
You almost think there can’t have been much left, but even the depleted collection was massive. By the 1970s only (only!) 100,000 objects were left from the main collection, given to the Science Museum. The Wellcome Trust had to make do with “their founder’s 600,000-volume library and stash of more than 100,000 paintings, prints and photographs.”
I can’t even imagine. A collection so large that even after getting rid of tons and tons of it, you’re still left with hundreds of thousands of items. It makes the few boxes of toys and comics and magazines from my childhood currently cluttering our living room seem more manageable.
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