• A Peek Behind the Scenes at the Wellcome Trust

    1
    scissors
    July 2nd, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    Do you have a place you walk past every day, always wondering what’s inside? For me, that place is the Wellcome Trust. As a student at UCL I often cut through Gower Place and I always peer in the windows to get a glimpse of the beautiful trees and cool professional-looking people chilling in the Wellcome Trust’s atrium. I always think how great it would be to work there. That would be my cafe! Those would be my colleagues! Also, they have revolving doors. How cool is that?! However the other day, by the grace of a very generous friend, I was lucky enough to have to chance to explore its hallowed halls.

    The Wellcome Trust held a competition the select the lucky participants of their “Tweet-Up Tour” and my friend Ant Newman was witty enough to win a place. However, when he found he couldn’t go he managed to wangle me on in his place. So it was that I rocked up to 215 Euston Road at five to 6 last Tuesday feeling rather jammy.

    The tour started off with short talks about the massive paintings in the two seating areas off the reception. The one on the left shows 16th Century scholar Dr John Dee demonstrating a scientific experiment. In the audience in his home in Mortlake are Queen Elizabeth I and assorted courtiers. The second is of participants of one of the first International Medical Congresses at a garden party held by Angela, Baroness Burdett-Courts in 1881. Both are stunning, and free for the public to admire (as is the rest of the Wellcome Library). So next time you’re passing I would thoroughly recommend popping in for a look. As an added bonus, you get to go through the revolving doors when you go in (always fun).

    We then continued into the 7-storey high atrium that rises between the open-sided floors of offices. At the Gower Street end of this space is the Bleigiessen sculpture. This was definitely my favourite part of the tour, just because of its sheer awesome glittering-ness. The sculpture is formed from 142,000 glass beads about an inch across strung on 840 kilometres of wire. At first I thought the twisting shape was suspended from above but we were informed that each vertical wire holds about 3 beads, suspended in just the right place to form the three dimensional shape. This makes it look a bit like the sparkling cloud is hanging in a steely haze. To see a video about its genesis click here.

    My phone's camera was blinded by the awesomeness of Bleigiessen, but I think you can see how excited I was.

    The sculpture is visually stunning, but a huge amount of planning went into its formation. The original lead shape (about the size of my hand) was scanned at a London hospital to create a 3D plan for the assembly. I would have loved to have known more about this bit but I think my fellow tourers were not quite as nerdy about medical imaging methods… The Thomas Heatherwick Studios also did more than 400 tests to form the perfect poured shape to be scaled up. A lot of science went into forming this piece and in my opinion the end result is truly worth it.

    After zooming up in the glass lift to see the sculpture from the top, we went back down and crossed from the Gibbs building to the Wellcome Library next door. In the Rare Materials Reading Room were exciting treasures to behold such as an original manuscript of John Dee’s (that guy in the painting in the foyer) and a sketch of the DNA double helix by Francis Crick. The latter drawn before the paper which was to win him and his partner James Watson a share of the Nobel Prize was published. See a picture of this taken by my fellow tourer Deborah Granger (@DebGrainger) here. The blunt-pencilled sketch is beautiful in its imperfection. You can still see where he rubbed out the guidelines and the bases look slightly blobby and misaligned.  I found it incredibly heartening to know that even the “discoverer” of the double-helix structure met slight problems when trying to draw it by hand, as do students up and down the country. Just because you know what something should look like doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to realise it on paper, however much or a molecular biology genius you are.

    In the semifreddo climate-controlled store room we were shown a couple of paintings stored on very nifty sliding racks (kind of like vertical drawers). One was actually a poster promoting the mineral water Agua de Vilajuiga. Our guide (the Curator of the Wellcome Collection, I believe) told us that this was the favourite water of Salvador Dali, and ruminated that perhaps the high lithium content (as promoted in the last line of the poster) was a contributing factor to Dali’s eccentricity.

    Being foolish and too in-the-moment I did not take note of any of the names of the wonderful members of staff who showed us round. However they were all very friendly and generously shared a huge amount of knowledge with us. I’d like to say a massive thank you to the Wellcome Trust for letting us in and to the staff for giving us their time.

     

    If you want to see the Bliegiessen for yourself (I think you do) then the video link above gives details of the tours that run on Friday afternoons. Also you should check out my good chum Ant at @ant_newman because he was the one he made this possible.

     

    Tags: ,

1 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

Leave a reply