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A Visual Consideration of How We Relate to Death

Courtesy the Wellcome Library's new open-access repository of historical imagery.
A gigantic human skull, representing death, spewing out poison in the form of warships armed with poison gas. Color lithograph, early 1920s.

This morning, the Wellcome Library followed in the steps of The Getty and the British Library by opening access to over 100,000 images from the institution’s 2.5 million item archive. The Library is part of the Wellcome Collection, a museum with a medical bent that has a history of fusing together the established with the unusual, displaying traditional medical artifacts alongside artistic interpretations of an exhibition’s theme.

So when I saw that the Wellcome Collection’s library opened up these images to the masses, I thought that it was the perfect opportunity to continue my habit, which began with The Getty, of touring the morbid side of open access image caches. This is not meant to present the dead human body as an object to be grossed out by, but rather to be a brief visual consideration of the ways we relate to death and cadavers.

Mourning brooches containing the hair of a deceased relative. 19th century. Image/caption credit: Wellcome Library, London.

According to an email I received from Catherine Draycott, the head of Wellcome Images, the Wellcome Images site has been up and operational since 2002, but only with low resolution images. All historical images on the site now have high-resolution downloads available, while rights-managed images are still only available at low resolution for self-service purposes.

“The move was prompted by the Wellcome Trust’s own trail-blazing work on open access to scientific information and the results of research,” Draycott told me. “It’s an amazingly diverse collection, much of which is unique. It goes back 4,000 years and the material comes from all over the world, reflecting the development of man’s understanding of his body, his health, and the world around him from witchcraft to lucky charms to surgery and anatomy.”

Wax model of a female head depicting life and death, European, possibly 18th century. With plaque giving quote from Bible. Image/caption credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Along with the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons—another medically minded museum, this one showcasing an awe-inspiring and nausea-inducing assortment of human and animal body parts in jars—the Wellcome Collection, which is part of the Wellcome Trust, is one of the best places to visit in London for those interested in medical history.

Horrors of the London burial grounds, being a correct account of the horrible disclosures made by gravediggers: with the manner of cutting up dead bodies, and other horrible transactions. Image/caption credit: Wellcome Library, London.

During my two years in the city, I lived a short walk up the street from the Collection and visited it frequently. I waltzed through exhibitions about drugs, sleep, and skin, the latter featuring a video of someone popping a zit from close up. It was the sort of video where you can’t tell what’s happening until it’s too late. And then you realize: oh God, that’s pus.

Anyway, besides being good for the occasional gross-out, the Collection also excels at offering meditations on more serious topics. In fact, the most memorable exhibit I ever saw there consisted of an exploration of death by an artist and a journalist. The pair took photos of two-dozen terminally ill people in the last weeks of their lives and just after their deaths. The living and dead photos were juxtaposed next to each other in the exhibit hall. It was somber and beautiful, sticking with me ever since I saw it in 2008.

The interior of a dissecting room: five students and/or teachers dissect a cadaver. Photograph, ca. 1900. Image/caption credit: Wellcome Library, London.

"The cadaver lies on a ceramic anatomy-table. A gas lamp is above the corpse. A student has placed a book on the cadaver's forearm as if the cadaver were holding it for him. Two of the men are smoking pipes. Anatomical prints are suspended on the wall," reads the Wellcome Library description for the above photograph.

Life and death. Oil painting. Image/caption credit: Wellcome Library, London.

"The head and shoulders of a boy (or possibly young woman), of which the side on the viewer's left shows the face as in life while the side on the right shows a skull and other signs of death. The costume is Italian seventeenth-century, but date of the painting could be later."

This is one of nine images depicting the death and decay of this woman. Paintings such as these are "rooted in Buddhist devotional practices" and were "regularly painted and reinterpreted during half a millenium of Japanese art," writes art historian Fusae Kanda. Of this particular image, the Wellcome Library says, "Putrefaction has set in, and so it continues until she is a heap of bones, having been pecked at by various animals along the way."

"Previously described as a plague pit, but if that were correct, the bones should be arranged in coherent skeletons rather than in no apparent order."

"Death is shown as a skeleton carrying a scythe, with an hourglass at his feet."

Aquatint by F. Jukes, 1803, after S. Collings. Image/caption credit: Wellcome Library, London.

"A doctor failing to hold death at bay from his patient; represented by a group of skeletal death figures one of whom is grabbing the doctor by the throat, the terrified patient looks on."

All works available from Wellcome Images under Creative Commons Attribution only license.