The Wellcome Collection’s new War and Medicine exhibition warns that “visitors in may find some images in this exhibition disturbing”. It’s true that the images of warfare, particularly those of survivors, can have quite an effect, but you shouldn’t let that put you off visiting this interesting and thought-provoking display.
Advances in medicine have often been driven by warfare. The exhibition charts this, contrasting the many soldiers killed by disease and famine in the Crimean War with the advances in sanitation and food provision in World War I and II, and through to present day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Artefacts from these wars such as pill boxes and food rations are presented alongside letters from soldiers, telling tales of terrible conditions.
Visitors also learn of the many medical innovations that resulted from new types of injuries during war. Plastic surgery was a response to the terrible gas attacks of the First World War trenches, and it is this part of the exhibition that exhibition that I found the most harrowing. Nevertheless there is some positivity, with more recent photos of those who have been able to lead normal lives thanks to reconstructive surgery. Nowadays, the most common injuries are to the limbs, which body armour can do nothing to protect against roadside bombs. This in turn is driving research into artificial replacements
I particular appreciated the text on the walls of the exhibition, which presented questions of just how medicine has benefited from war. Yes, a great many medical discoveries have arisen as the result of conflict, but have large wars also draw research away from areas with less military appeal? It certainly left me with ideas to think about.
The only criticism I can lay on the exhibition is one particular exhibit. Near the entrance, a panoramic film of the interior of a rescue helicopter plays in a darkened room. Unfortunately the room is so dark, and the projection under-powered, I found it almost impossible to see what was going on. Indeed, a course-mate walked into a bench in the room because he simply had been unable to see it. My annoyance with this exhibit was furthered by the low droning sounds of the helicopter reverberating around the rest of the exhibition, removing me from my introspective thoughts.
The exhibition opened on 22nd November, and runs until 15th February. Admission is free, and I recommend you go – as long as you can handle the powerful imagery.