Objects in Stereo
Captions and transcripts

‘Objects in Stereo’ is a new exhibition by British photographer Jim Naughten that explores the practice of keeping a collection, and asks what it means to keep and care for museum objects.

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Jim Naughten, Objects in Stereo


Jim Naughten’s work explores historic collections using stereoscopic photography, a technique which lends three-dimensional power to two-dimensional images. For ‘Objects in Stereo’, he has photographed objects from collections formed for Henry Wellcome in the early 20th century. These collections, loaned from Wellcome to the Science Museum Group, were until recently held in stores at Blythe House in west London. Naughten was one of the last artists to explore the building before Blythe began closing down and the collections packed for moving to a new storage facility.

Typically, 90 per cent of any museum’s collection is not exhibited. Most items are hidden from public view due to sheer numbers. Others are considered too obscure, too damaged or too delicate to put on display. Naughten’s stereoscopic photographs invite us to focus close attention on some of these remarkable things, revealing their intricacy and fragility as well as showing visible traces of collections care. The stereoscopic images are displayed alongside views of the stores themselves. Naughten’s large-scale photographs show the architecture of Blythe House – previously a Post Office Savings building – and of museum storage itself. They also reveal relationships between individual objects, and question how these kinds of spaces might shape our encounter with them.

‘Objects in Stereo’ offers a new perspective into the practice of keeping a collection. It asks questions about what it means to keep and care for museum objects, while reminding us of the complex relationship between seeing and understanding.

All photographs by Jim Naughten, 2019. Commissioned by Wellcome Collection.

Jim Naughten talks about his practice

Tobacco pipe shaped like a bird’s head

Unknown maker. Europe, 1860–90
Purchased from Easton Park auction sale, England, 1919
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A652886

The soft mineral meerschaum is used to make tobacco pipes. This one playfully resembles a bird’s head when seen upside down. Some elaborately carved pipes were not designed to use. They were decorative objects that showed the owner’s wealth. This pipe is stored with hundreds of others in the ‘Smoking Room’ at Blythe House, where the smell of tobacco is inescapable.

Angel figure from a pharmacy

Unknown maker. Europe, 1700–1800
Purchased from dealer Emile Schneider, Basel, Switzerland, 1912
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A634975

This ornate angel is one of a pair that supported a metal screen for hanging weighing scales. It originates from a Swiss pharmacy and was included in Wellcome’s original museum displays in 1913. The angel sits in store, delicate plaster hands now cracked. Future conservation work may restore him to a displayable condition.

Jim Naughten talks about stereoscopy

Early stereoscopy

Charles Wheatstone invented stereoscopy in 1838 to understand depth perception through two eyes. The stereoscope was first presented at the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, which showcased the art and technology of Britain and its empire. The device quickly became popular in in middle-class homes. Commercially produced stereo images allowed people to ‘travel’ to faraway places or experience famous events from the comfort of home. Photography and stereoscopy helped give British people a sense of familiarity with distant countries at a time of imperial domination. By the early 20th century the stereoscope even offered instant access to the inner spaces of the body. ‘The Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Anatomy’ gave medical students a way to conduct a virtual dissection step by step, using hundreds of individual stereo cards.

These light-sensitive stereo images will be exchanged during the exhibition run.

Stereoscope, Smith and Beck. London, England, c.1850.
Stereoscopic daguerreotype of the Great Exhibition, unknown maker. England, c.1851.
Purchased from Stevens auction house, London, 1931.
Wellcome Collection 3291679i

Stereoscope with 12 stereoscopic glass positive slides, Loyd Stereoscope Company. USA, c.1856. Slide shown is a view of Niagara Falls in summer.
Acquisition source not known.
Wellcome Collection 3291677i

Stereoscope and stereo-photographic cards from ‘Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Anatomy’. Cards shown are ‘Upper limb. Palm of hand no. 1’ (facsimile) and ‘Upper limb. Surface anatomy no 3. Upper part of back’. David Waterston (editor), T.C. & E.C. Jack, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1905-6.
Acquired late 20th century.
Wellcome Collection M4891

Curator Ruth Horry talks about Blythe House

Public health and hygiene room

These conservation-grade cupboards are in a room focused on public health collections and are filled with chamber pots and bedpans. Yet the elegant parquet floor and fireplace give glimpses of the building’s former use, as a manager’s office for the savings bank.

Pharmacy-ware room. Medicine cupboards

On top of the medicine cupboards is a pharmacist’s shop sign made from a deer antler, seen here under Blythe’s ever-present fluorescent strip lights. Wellcome’s museum staff collected the contents of pharmacies across Europe, from the medicines now safely stored in cupboards, to shop fittings including these decorative tiled tables. Green labels in this room indicate that the Science Museum’s inventory team have finished surveying for any hazardous materials.

Pharmacy-ware room. Signage

Museum stores operate on long timeframes and provide glimpses into previous museum practices as well as collection objects. Naughten captures these histories, including a period of Blythe’s history where the building was only occupied by a few staff, familiar with navigating its corridors. With Blythe’s closure many new staff have entered the space to inventory and move the collections. Here, newer signage for the pharmacy room sits alongside earlier wayfinding signs from the 1990s.

Bottles of cinnamon lozenges and potassium chlorate lozenges

Cinnamon (left) and potassium chlorate (right) lozenges, N F Tyler pharmacy, London, England, 1870–1900
Purchased from private seller, London, England, 1962
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A633839, A633875

These remedies for sore throats, particularly for the severe sore throats of diphtheria, were sold loose in the 19th century. Pharmacies displayed a set of matching jars and bottles, each marked with the product’s name. These two bottles are among the entire contents of a London pharmacy purchased in 1962.

Conservator Emma Duggan talks about Blythe House

Medicinal plants room

The accumulated smell of thousands of medicinal plant specimens stored together for a long period of time can be overpowering. Staff follow procedures to ensure safe working with these items. A simple note reminds staff opening this basement room to “vent for 10 minutes before entering”, to let fresh air circulate.

Jar of chamomile flower heads

Unknown maker. Belgium, 1898
Acquired from unknown source, c.1898–1970
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A675331

Chamomile flowers have a long history of use for digestive issues and other ailments. Wellcome’s museum collected medicinal plant specimens like these from across the world. Plants were acquired from multiple sources, including through colonial exploitation of resources by Wellcome’s drug company. These chamomile flowers are stored in glass jars labelled with the botanical name, and museum conservators have sealed the jars with a protective film.

Fragile materials

Seeing objects in a museum store is a different experience from in a gallery. A store is designed to help preserve objects for the long term and can feel like a place where time moves differently.

Henry Wellcome’s collection contains many multiples of similar items, reflecting early 20th-century desires to collect in duplicates. There are rows of drawers filled with glass vessels and a room full of stone bowls for grinding medicinal plants. Inherently fragile materials such as wax, textiles, paper, leather and wood benefit from particular storage conditions and careful monitoring. Some rooms have specific environments that help to preserve these materials. Objects containing fragile materials will deteriorate with age and use, while others may be too damaged to be displayed.

Materials may also be hazardous for the people working with them. In preparation for moving out of Blythe, rooms have been systematically checked and any hazardous materials tagged with red labels. Previous well-intentioned efforts to preserve objects haven’t always been beneficial; for example, past chemical treatments for pests have made wooden objects toxic to touch. Conservation treatments today work on principles of minimal intervention and reversibility. Museum practices are beginning to take into consideration the specific cultural origins of objects to understand how best to care for them.

Pharmacy-ware room. Shelves of mortars

Objects related to pharmacy are stored in two expansive basement rooms. On the rear shelves are large stone bowls, called mortars, used for grinding medicinal preparations. The pharmacy angel shown in Naughten’s photograph on the opposite wall is stored in this room, just out of view here.

Wax bust of a bearded man

Unknown maker. Probably from Italy, 1500–1700
Acquired from unknown source, c.1890–1936
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A650883

Head tilted upward, eyes wide open, this wax bust has a detailed anatomical focus on the man’s neck, possibly a thyroid condition called a mastoid. A combination of artistic expression and medical imagery combined in this image likely made it attractive to collect. The delicate wax has been historically damaged in the chin area, revealing natural wax underneath the brown colour.

Prosthetic right hand

Unknown maker. Probably from England, 1850–1920
Acquired from unknown source, c.1890–1936
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A653500

A highly personal item; whoever owned this prosthetic hand used it until the wood and leather became scuffed and worn. Since entering the museum collection, conservation treatments for woodworm pests have made it hazardous. The red label warns that that the object must now be “handled with gloves”. This once intimate and regularly touched part of someone’s body has been profoundly changed.

Orthopaedic corset

Unknown maker. France, 1601–1800
Purchased from collector Noel Hamonic, Paris, France, 1928
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A121451

Made to fit a small adult man, this iron corset was intended to support the spine after injury or because of spine curvature. The rigid metal would be highly uncomfortable after a day of wear, despite being padded under the arms with leather, and adjustable using the front notches. Leather straps stitched onto the iron structure are now extremely fragile, and museum staff handle them as little as possible.

Conservator Emma Duggan talks about the orthopaedic corset

Sculptural head of Christian martyr

Unknown maker. Europe, 1500–1600
Purchased on staff collecting trip from dealer M Cremieux, Chartres, France, 1929
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A78819

The intricately carved anatomical detail drew Wellcome’s collecting agent to purchase this wooden sculpture. A piece of Christian religious art from an abbey in France, it depicts the severed head of a Christian martyr who died for his faith. The inner organs of his neck are revealed – windpipe, oesophagus, bones – expressing the saint’s bodily suffering. Long cracks in the aged wood run down the martyr’s left cheek.

Healing figures

Blythe’s stores contain a striking number of artistic and visual representations of healing from societies across the world, in human, animal and divine form. They reflect the desire to seek help from religious and secular sources at times of illness and misfortune. Figures of different kinds were a prominent feature in Wellcome’s early historical displays, and were used to illustrate subjects related to the body.

Blythe also holds cast sculptures and replica items alongside original objects, acquired when less value was placed on the authentic. Some models and dioramas were created specifically for Wellcome’s museum. These display ‘props’ illustrated stories of the past when no original objects were available, reflecting changing types of museum storytelling. They eventually entered the collection in their own right.

We know the histories of some of the healing figures Naughten has photographed from before they entered the museum. But many were acquired in mass purchases from the British auction markets and antiquities dealers. Stories of how each individual item entered the market may be hard to recover, through loss, neglect or erasure by European interests. Sales of objects from the Global South were ultimately fuelled by colonial structures of violence and control. New research is needed to address these legacies.

Statuary room

The figures that populate this basement room were collected for their associations with healing or illness. On the right, an almost life-size 18th-century figure of St Denis holds his severed head in his hands. In the centre is the Aztec god of death, Mictlāntēcutli, now known to be a modern imagining by a British sculptor.

Curator Ruth Horry talks about the statuary room

Figure of St Sebastian

Unknown maker. Spain, 1400–1600
Purchased on staff collecting trip from dealer Linares, Madrid, Spain, 1934
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A634976

When plague raged across medieval Europe, Christians sought help from God through St Sebastian. He became a venerated saint for his powers to protect against plague and heal sufferers. Legend tells that Sebastian was shot with arrows for his beliefs but later recovered. The arrows are also symbolic for pestilence, in a tradition adopted from ancient Greek mythology.

Helmet mask used in Epa celebrations

Unknown Yoruba artist. Ekiti kingdoms, southwestern Nigeria, 1870–1920
Purchased at British Empire Exhibition, London, 1924–5
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A37289

The Epa festival, performed in Nigeria’s Ekiti region, celebrates Yoruba culture and ancestry through ceremony and dance. Masqueraders wear sculptural masks such as this one featuring a mother with children (olomoyeye), associated with women’s fertility and community prosperity. The mask’s history is tied to Britain’s colonial control of Nigeria. Made in Nigeria, it was brought to London for the 1924–5 British Empire Exhibition, which exhibited cultural arts from colonised countries. Exhibition organisers required the visiting Nigerian artists to be publicly visible in a racist ‘display’.

Classical and medieval medicine room. Figures of Christian saints

These Christian saints once populated European churches and abbeys, but now share a shelf at Blythe. St Barbara, wearing a crown and standing by a tower, is patron of workers in dangerous occupations. St Nicholas is shown as patron of children. Many figures were purchased from antique dealers on collecting trips in France and Spain in the late 1920s. Museum employees wielded the power of Wellcome’s wealth to buy large numbers of objects at the lowest prices.

Mask depicting Gurulu Raksha, the bird-demon

Unknown Sinhalese artist. Sri Lanka, 1771–1920
Purchased from Sotheby’s auction house, London, 1930
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A100831

Masks of Gurulu Raksha, a demon in bird form, have featured for centuries in kolam dance drama in southern Sri Lanka. In legend, Gurulu Raksha defeated the evil cobra demon Naga Raksha and so protects against illness and dangerous snakes. Bird-demon masks hang on house doors to ward off evil spirits, recognisable by the headdress of defeated snake enemies. This mask was purchased at a London auction sale, its previous history obscured in the colonial-era antiquities market.

A medieval physician taking a patient’s pulse

Jane Jackson. England, 1944. Commissioned sculpture based on imagery in Guido de Vigevano’s ‘Anathomia designata per figuras’, 1345
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group A631065

The physician in the blue hat is taking a patient’s pulse or physically manipulating them. This scene is a 20th-century reimagining of a medieval manuscript illustration, made by sculptor Jane Jackson. It was displayed in Wellcome’s museum in the 1940s to help narrate the past. It is now a historic object in its own right, showing how Henry Wellcome’s museum used art commissions to engage visitors.

Making knowledge

Collections at Blythe House are organised in rooms according to theme. Stored objects, unlike those on public display, don’t have explanatory labels. Naughten’s photographs of these rooms show how the absence of interpretation makes the museum’s own categorisation systems more prominent, revealing implicit narratives shaped by power, time and place.

Scientists and medical practitioners have long sought knowledge about human bodies and minds and have collected, classified and categorised them. These categories have supported narratives of racism, ableism and exclusion, and museum collections have upheld them. How museums have organised and displayed their collections reflect society’s deeper value systems, as well as the intent of collectors and staff. Grappling with unjust legacies and questioning inherited knowledge are essential parts of museum work into the future.

Museum stores are becoming sites of public research, ‘visible storage’ and community facilities. The Science Museum Group’s new collections centre will open in Wiltshire in 2024. Wellcome Collection is inventorying its own stores as part of efforts to address the legacies of our collections. Stored collections hold a myriad of stories connected to individual lives and are an essential aspect of future care and action.

Asian Medicine room

This cupboard contains objects from East Asia and South Asia. Clear pull-out trays help to keep each item visible. Many relate to practical medicine, such as surgical tools from Lahore, Pakistan. Others are artistic objects, including numerous medical-themed Japanese netsuke. Grouping items by their geographical origin makes researching similar material easier, but also reflects a long history in museums of Europe-centred categorisation. A few 1980s labels remain in the drawers, one of them exoticising East Asian sex-related objects as ‘erotica’.

Surgery room

This basement room was a money vault when Blythe House was a bank headquarters. Now it stores around 30,000 surgical instruments in wooden drawers. Collecting multiples of similar objects was common in early 20th-century collections, but museums are less likely to collect in such quantities today. Museums must consider how each item is meaningful for audiences, as well as the costs of storing them.

Psychology, psychiatry and anthropometry room

Anthropometry is the physical measurement of individual humans. These late 19th-century plaster casts are of individuals’ heads, taken for the purposes of classifying them. They sit alongside phrenology models that falsely claimed to map mental characteristics based on head shape. Some casts are the heads of people convicted of crimes, seeking a physical rather than social basis for criminality. On the top shelf is the anatomical head pictured in Naughten’s next photograph.

Anatomical cast or model of human head

Unknown maker. Europe, 1900–80
Owned by the British Phrenological Society. Formerly associated with the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine
Science Museum 1999-390

This painted plaster model looks so real because it is likely a cast of a person’s head, modelled to show the brain structure. It was previously associated with Wellcome’s academic institute, and before that owned by the British Phrenological Society. Phrenology is a false 19th-century theory that categorised people into types using physical features. It was used to support racist ideas of white superiority and argue for removing groups and individuals deemed to be inferior from society (eugenics).

Classical and medieval medicine room. Greco-Roman prayer offerings

Each clay foot lined up on the shelves is an ancient Greek or Roman votive prayer offering to the gods, a prayer to heal the affected body part or in thanks for being healed. The store room is filled with votive body parts – from ears and teeth, to genitalia representing fertility. Together they give an insight into a society’s collective hopes and fears.

Flint nodules shaped like legs and feet

Left: probably Sussex, England, 1870–1925. Gift. Alban Head, 1925
Middle: north-east England, 1908–1916. Gift. Edward Lovett collection, 1916
Right: north-east England, 1908–1916. Gift. Edward Lovett collection, 1916
Wellcome Collection / Science Museum Group
A38134, A665264, A665276

These palm-sized pieces of flint are quietly present among many drawers of English amulets and charms. Each stone piece naturally resembles a leg or foot and was carried as a preventative charm against gout, a painful condition that affects the joints, often in the knee or toe. We know the names of collectors, including folklorist Edward Lovett, but rarely names of the working-class people who carried these objects.

Seeing in 3D and understanding depth

We all perceive the world differently, interpreting cues from our surroundings to navigate the world. People who see with two eyes (binocular vision) get a slightly different view through each eye. The brain interprets these small differences into a three-dimensional view that aids perception of depth and distances between objects. People who see with one eye (monocular vision) perceive depth using other visual cues, such as size and movement.

Stereoscopic images

Stereoscopic images were invented in the 19th century by Charles Wheatstone to understand depth perception through two eyes. Jim Naughten uses this technique to encourage us to focus close attention on remarkable museum objects.

Naughten has photographed each object from a left-eye and right-eye perspective. The two images are printed next to each other. Looking at the pair of images through a stereo viewer encourages the brain to merge them together. It gives the illusion of being a 3D image.

Some people find the 3D effect in stereoscopic images difficult to see at first, while some find it easy. Some don’t see the 3D effect at all. This does not imply anything about the way your eye(s) or brain function.

There are other ways to enjoy the exhibition that don’t rely on seeing the effect. You can look at the photographs as regular images without a viewer. Close up images on the resource table offer detailed views. A digital guide has a highlights tour with the artist, curator and conservator, available in audio with audio description and in British Sign Language.

How to use the stereo viewers

Use the floor marker to position your viewer in front of the print at the recommended distance away.

Hold the viewer up to your face and look at the print.

Slowly look towards the centre of the image. The 3D effect should appear.

If you have trouble seeing the effect, keep the viewer to your face and try moving slightly closer or further away.

Once you see the 3D image, you can explore the depth and detail of the picture.

Exhibition credits

Ruth Horry, Emily Sargent

Exhibition Project Managers
Nelly Ekstrom, Amy Higgitt, Georgia Monk

David Chan, Emma Smith

Production Manager
Christian Kingham

Exhibition Technician
Lucy Woodhouse

3D design

2D design
Martin McGrath Studio

Graphic production

Lighting design
Sanford Lighting

The Moule Partnership

Creative Access Consultants
Eleanor Margolies, Prof Hannah Thompson

Audio description

British Sign Language

We would like to thank our colleagues who have generously lent their expertise and ideas to the exhibition, and who have contributed to its planning and delivery.

Special thanks to the Science Museum Group for their collaboration, particularly to colleagues working at Blythe House.

Thank you to Jessica Bradford, Rebecca Brice, Bryony Cairncross, Natasha McEnroe, Erica P Jones, Calum Storrie, Emily Yates.

We would also like to thank the individuals who participated in focus-group sessions and gave invaluable feedback that shaped the development of the stereo-viewing experience.