Photograph by Madeline Witek
Photograph by Madeline Witek

The Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds is truly a diamond in the rough: housed in an old nineteenth-century workhouse and attached to St. James’s Hospital, it is a short bus ride out of the city centre. Telling the history of medicine through personal stories and narrative, it is a gem from the nineties with hyper-saturated colours and a large emphasis on stimulating the olfactory senses. The ground floor galleries feature a recreation of a street from 1842 Leeds, complete with mannequins, smells, and lots of fake blood. On the first floor, it may come as a surprise to encounter what looks like a gallery of art. In the middle of all the medicine and surgery, there is a gallery full of over 600 jars that look incredibly out of place.

This is the John F. Wilkinson Gallery of Medical Ceramics, or the Wilkinson Gallery as it is called around the museum. It is home to Manchester-based Dr. Wilkinson’s collection of apothecary jars which he donated to the museum right before it opened in 1997, and it is the largest collection of its kind in the world. In my placement at the museum, I was designated the role of ‘Wilkinson Redevelopment Officer’ and it was my job to identify key issues with the gallery and find ways to make it accessible and visible to the Thackray’s visitors.

Photograph by Madeline Witek
Photograph by Madeline Witek

Many visitors don’t even know the gallery exists: museum literature doesn’t point them in the gallery’s direction and the directional signage at the top of the stairs isn’t very straightforward about its existence. Also, most visitors became overwhelmed and confused when they enter the gallery due to the volume of jars (600!) and the intense quiet they encounter. In comparison to the rest of the museum, with its constant barrage of noise and smell, the Wilkinson Gallery can be seen as an oasis of calm and peace, but it can also be viewed as intimidating and inaccessible. Once inside the gallery, the minimal interpretation within does little to communicate the full narrative these jars hold: from the Middle Ages until almost the end of the nineteenth century, apothecaries filled prescriptions, made diagnoses, let blood, and shaved customers, a sort of chemist/barber/doctor hybrid. The jars within the gallery would have been arranged on shelves around the apothecary’s shop, full of ingredients and medicines that they would dispense in front of the customer. For this information to reach the visitor effectively, it needs to be communicated before they encounter the 600 jars en masse.

I focused part of my placement on figuring out the best way to unlock the gallery for the visitor: what was missing that would make the experience of the Wilkinson Gallery less intimidating and more fulfilling? I found the answer was to provide visitors with a little bit of context prior to entering the gallery so that they were armed with knowledge before the sheer volume of jars overwhelmed them and drove them away. I wrote a brief introduction to the gallery and liaised with a designer to come up with a panel that is simple yet communicative. When the panel goes to print, it will be on permanent display at the museum, helping visitors better appreciate the beauty of the Wilkinson Collection.

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