In the basements of Wellcome Collection are a series of environmentally controlled stores where you'll find our manuscripts, archives and rare materials. It’s the job of the Retrieval Team to bring items from the stores up to researchers in the Library. The team gets to see more of our collections than anyone else. So who better to ask for their favourite things from the stores?
By Lalita Kaplish
American Early Printed Books
Jim chose the American early printed books because of their originality. These books cover what is now known as the western United States - Arizona, Texas, New Mexico up to Colorado and Utah. Jim says “these fantastic books were compiled and written by Spanish missionaries and contain much valuable information about the different Native American tribes and their way of life, and also the various wildlife around then – they were very dangerous times”.
The Constitution Violated
“This book isn’t particularly valuable or rare” says Leila, “but in its unassuming way it represents one of the most significant – yet largely unknown- figures in women’s history. The author Josephine Butler rails against the pernicious terms of the Contagious Diseases Act - a piece of legislation that effectively dehumanised sex workers in an attempt to control venereal disease. Hers is the voice of revolution, and this book is a howl of outrage, written at a time when women had few rights and little social influence”.
Sam discovered this manuscript when a couple of researchers came all the way from Italy to view some of our Batak manuscripts. “I had never even heard of the Batak people of Sumatra, and I was surprised to find that we had quite a few of these strange little books made of wood and palm leaves from the other side of the world in our basement store. Even after retrieving hundreds of items, I’m still not used to the extraordinary range of our collection!”
De Humani Corporis Fabrica
The Fabric of the Human Body by Andreas Vesalius is probably the seminal work in the history of anatomy. In his first encounter with the book, Javier says its big and heavy two volume format left him open-mouthed. The richly illustrated work is as impressive as the knowledge it contains, as Javier says: “If you believe in bibles here you have one to serve your sense of awe.”
"One very quiet Saturday”, Sarah recalls,” I finished retrieval early and had time to kill, so I opened some of the books in the Armenian manuscripts collection. When I opened Armenian 15 it was love at first sight. The book itself is a collection of sermons and other religious writing, however, the margins are full of a child’s drawings. My favourite is a ‘Claw Man’, a very badly drawn figure of a human with claws instead of fingers. It’s a wonderful insight into the life of the book’s owner, and it’s a sweet sign of how little children have changed in the past 400 years."
A “hand bomb” from the Franco-Prussian war
Scott says most of the collections we work with are paper based, or artworks so “it was a real surprise to find this, hidden away in the stores - not just an object but an early grenade! As a military history buff, it reminds me a lot of the sea mines so prevalent during the two world wars. It’s small, but quite menacing, sitting in its box. It really captures the lethality of conflict for me.” The “hand bomb” is part of the personal archive of Albert Lee Ward, an American diplomat and Red Cross Volunteer.
Souzou exhibition catalogue
“This pamphlet was produced as part of my favourite exhibition that Wellcome Collection has ever put on, Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan, in 2013. I loved it so much I visited four times, I might even go so far as to say this is the best exhibition that I have seen, anywhere, ever! The 46 artists represented in the show were all residents and day attendees at social welfare institutions across Japan. My favourite artist featured was Shinichi Sawada, and the pamphlet folds out into a giant A3 size image of his work. We also have the invitation the Souzou private view which comes in a tissue paper envelope that is quite cute!”
The Streatham Grave Robbers
Colin’s interest in this slim book is simply personal: “I have called this part of London home for about 15 years now. I never doubted it would have an interesting history.”
Sex workers' phonebox cards
Daila says she selected the sex workers' phonebox cards “because I think they highlight a very captivating side of our vast collections: the human condition. I’ve found it fascinating to see how the style and the message of the cards have changed in the almost three decades they cover. In the last of our 18 boxes I found cards made by the Metropolitan Police – something that you would not expect – campaigning against the human trafficking of women".
Sarah has dubbed this "the Shiney book of Shininess". She says “opening this book was like opening a box of pirate gold – the pages glowed because of the amount of gold leaf used in the illustrations. The illustrations tell wonderful stories about cannibalistic sorceresses, enchanted fairies, and murder. It’s a wonderfully beautiful work of art.”
About the contributors
Lalita is a web editor at Wellcome Collection.
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