The Science Museum’s medical collections are amongst the world’s best. From ancient cultures to the contemporary cutting edge, they continue to be built on the magnificent legacy of the collections assembled by the wealthy entrepreneur Henry Wellcome (1853-1936).
Over several decades, Wellcome spent a considerable chunk of his fortune establishing what was once the world’s largest private collection. He bought extravagantly, at auctions or via agents sent out to all corners of the globe. So what’s with the lichen in a jar?
Within these vast holdings there is a small, eclectic handful of objects recorded as being “found”, “gathered” or indeed “picked up” by Sir Henry. Seemingly random, modest artifacts that you could imagine he saw, then pocketed – later to be catalogued alongside far more precious and valuable objects.
The lichen is recorded as being picked up by Sir Henry on a trip to Stonehenge in 1890. A note by the cataloguer suggests it was originally kept in a matchbox. We don’t know what happened to that.
These simple bronze objects are stored amongst hundreds of similar Roman implements. But these six appear to be the only ones that Wellcome himself picked up from an archaeological site.
Archaeology was one of Henry’s passions and between 1911 and 1914 he funded major excavations at Jebel Moya, in Sudan. Here, he pioneered the use of aerial photography to view archaeological features and also found time to personally dig up the bone beads shown above which once formed a necklace.
There is one final, rather poignant contribution by Wellcome to his own collections. This geranium was gathered by him, at the age of 82 on a visit to Florida in 1936. He had travelled many thousands of miles building up his collections, but this proved to be his last big trip. He died shortly afterwards.