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A window onto Wellcome

3 Apr, 2012
215 Euston Road window installation

'The Treasures of Henry Wellcome' window installation

Beaded turtles, a mechanical vibrator, a shrunken head: it would be difficult to find a more eclectic selection of items than those currently occupying the windows of 215 Euston Road. Some charming, others challenging, the 75 objects captured in photographs taken by Thom Atkinson represent only a minute fraction of the remarkable collection acquired by Henry Wellcome.

Many of the objects have been hidden away for decades in vast archives at Blythe House in Olympia or the holdings of the Wellcome Library, while others will be familiar sights for visitors to the Medicine Man gallery at Wellcome Collection.

The photographs, which were originally commissioned by the Financial Times Weekend Magazine for a feature marking the 75th anniversary of the Wellcome Trust, have been used to create a startling window installation celebrating Henry Wellcome’s life and legacy. I spoke to the installation’s designer, Shaz Madani, to find out more.

Can you tell us about the design process behind the installation?

Thom’s photos are absolutely beautiful and the objects themselves are amazing, which made my job a lot easier than it would be normally!

The windows are on a busy road, so most of the people who pass by them are walking really quickly, going to or from work or the hospital. The installation had to be something that was instant and grabbed people’s attention. It needed a ‘wow’ factor.

We really wanted to create something visually dynamic. The photographs are different sizes, which creates an interesting fluidity. It draws your eye across, up and down, and it tells a kind of story. I think that Henry Wellcome’s collection is quite poetic and it’s not linear either. He wanted to tell a story and to create a sense of discovery, a journey through different layers of history.

The different photograph sizes also reflect the individuality of the objects themselves. They all have unique stories and something different to say.

Scale was really important.  Having smaller objects at the front and larger ones at the back was a really good way of getting around the fact that we’re opposite a massive road. People walking past can see the smaller images and people in cars or buses are able to see the larger ones. The largest photographs are also a little nod to the mammoth scale of Wellcome Collection and how much of it still hasn’t been unpacked.

Were there other themes that you wanted to draw out?

I found some really wonderful photographs of Henry Wellcome’s original museum. It was packed with pictures, photographs and cases of these lovely objects all behind glass. There was an idea of ‘preserving’ that I wanted to carry over into the window installation.

What was the most challenging part?

The biggest challenge was probably dealing with photographs as 2D objects in a 3D space [the window]. If you see these objects in the gallery then you see them in 3D. You get to walk around them and see them from different angles and really feel connected with them. I wanted to inject depth and energy into them, but at the same time stay true to the fact that they are photographs and not try to pretend that they aren’t.

Using wooden frames allowed us to display them in a traditional sense, but with a little bit of a twist. They also echo back to the materials [wood and glass] used to display the objects in the Medicine Man gallery. It’s a nice way to tie the window display in with the gallery. If people do go inside to visit Wellcome Collection, there’ll be a connection.

What was the best part of the process?

When we turned the lights on and saw it all come together – that was really fun! Also seeing people’s reactions while we were putting the installation up. They were coming up to the window and asking what was going on. They were really interested and baffled about what these objects were, which was really interesting.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m actually more traditionally a print designer. I don’t often work on installations, but this has been a really interesting experience and something that I would definitely like to do more of.

I’m currently setting up my own independent practice and working across branding, publishing and magazines.

‘The Treasures of Henry Wellcome’ runs at the Wellcome Trust, 215 Euston Road, NW1 2BE, from 9th March to 20th May.

Image credit: Wellcome Images
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