The Reading Room, described in its handsome book companion as a “space designed to nurture those most gravely afflicted by the desire to know just a little bit more”, melts into the Wellcome Collection’s mantra of ‘a home for the incurably curious’ all too perfectly.
In that Threshold Moment, every face entering the room turns automatically skywards and admires the artistry randomly, never quite knowing where to look next. The Reading Room is a carefully curated selection of books, artwork and medical equipment, meant to reflect the duality of Henry Wellcome’s interests. An “eclectic, exotic springboard for the exploration of the human condition” (Reading Room Companion), the room is an awe-inspiring mélange of textures, themes, feelings and activities. There is an overriding sense of comfort and ease amidst the body parts and straitjackets, with plush beanbags, soft rugs and gentle lighting to subdue the terror of the dentist’s chair lurking in wait.
The Reading Room is a wholly tactile environment. While most readers will cautiously grope the books on display in Waterstones, peering round corners to ensure they won’t be caught sniffing the pages in dirty shame, The Wellcome Collection actively invites readers to touch, feel and play with the space in a uniquely interactive way. Stations dotted around the room encourage readers to perform an autopsy, study their own face, share what they see in an inkblot and lounge on the amoeba-inspired cushions strewn down the stairs. The readers don’t just make the space their own, they become a part of the architecture.
As well as this physical interaction with the space, there is also an emphasis on creating an emotional connection. Brightly coloured recommendations from past visitors are wedged between the pages of the books, markers revealing deeply personal thoughts from readers we will never know or identify. There’s a feel of Post Secret about these innocent bookmarks; divulging the most base of human emotions to a complete stranger, transcending time to give the future reader a glimpse of your past life.
One funny book with nothing but pictures of dogs on each page spurred some heartbreaking confessions. One reader left a note detailing how deeply the recent death of a pet had affected them and another simply stating “When I die, I want to come back as a dog”, creating a gorgeous juxtaposition between the humous intent of the book and the somber emotions it incites.
The Reading Room is split into 10 distinct niches. From Alchemy to Travel to Pain, this organisation of the space takes you on a journey through the human history of life, death and everything in between. The books on offer are a delightful combination of old and new, fiction and non-fiction, giving a rounded and reflective representation of the niche. Grey’s Anatomy sits snugly against The Fault in Our Stars, sharing the shelf like old friends.
The zones give a sense of character and personality to the space. The books are stickered and shelved in a way that encourages exploration; assorted but not messy. There is no hushed reverence as readers are forced to bend in worship, scrabbling on the bottom shelves for D 280 CLA in the Blue Zone
– no talking, no phones, no food. Instead, The Reading Room allows readers to run their hands across the spines in freedom, choosing the titles that grab their attention and pique their interest.
Ellis, Seebohm and Sykes (1995) see bookish spaces as “nurturing, a comfort zone, an escape hatch, a
place to retreat to for tea and talk, thinking and reading, recapturing memories, regenerating spirit and ideas”. The Reading Room at the Wellcome Collection manages to tick every one of these boxes, capturing the very essence of what it truly means to fall down the rabbit hole.
Ellis, E., Seebohm, C. and Sykes, CS. (1995). At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries. New York: Carol Southern Books.
All photographs my own.