Wellcome Archives, London


A review of the Wellcome Archives, London, United Kingdom.

Dreams are intensely private entities, or so historians working on the post-war period have tended to assume. My Master’s thesis, a social history of dream analysis in Britain from 1945 to 1960, looked to challenge this assumption. My research explored the social uses of dreams within the practice of psychoanalysis, particularly with respect to the communication of sexual knowledge. As such, I headed for the Wellcome Archives, just opposite Euston Station in London (Address and opening hours). The holdings, focussing on the history of science and medicine, were ideal for my project. For two months in early 2012 I visited the Wellcome regularly, trawling through the personal papers of Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott and Edward Fyfe Griffith: three analysts operating in and around London during the 1940s and 1950s. I found a wealth of case notes and, even more excitingly, I also found diaries and drawings produced by patients. My thesis then moved to dwell further on the active role played by patients in negotiating the mechanics of therapy.

Registration at the Wellcome is quick and straightforward. So long as you have the required proof of identity and proof of address with you, it should not take more than 10 minutes. (A passport or a driving licence with an address on it are your best bet, whether from the United Kingdom or abroad.) Be warned: as is becoming increasingly common practice, the staff will take your photo there and then. This photo will then be printed onto your library card. Unaware of this, I appear particularly unkempt in mine.

You can speed up the whole registration process a little bit by completing some of the forms online before you arrive. This has the added advantage of allowing you to order items in advance of your first visit. They will then be waiting for you when you turn up. If you do not do this, you will have to order your items after registration, which may leave you waiting for an hour or two.

As a bonus, the Wellcome Archives are situated inside the Wellcome Library. Your library card provides access to both. Both are generally quiet and calm working environments, although they can get quite busy during the run-up to undergraduate exams (May and June). Although the library is not a borrowing library, it is a fantastic resource for historians of science and medicine. There is a solid collection of secondary literature alongside both print and online access to most major journals. There is also a large collection of non-archival primary sources, such as twentieth-century medical textbooks, which are available on the open shelves. For my own research, it was certainly useful to be able to pull down a copy of The Interpretation of Dreams, among other items on psychoanalysis, thus negating the need to lug all my own books around.

Both the Wellcome Archives and the Wellcome Library are open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday 10am to 6pm. On Thursdays they open at 10am and close at the later time of 8pm. At the weekend, both are only open on Saturday from 10am to 4pm. Take note that the Wellcome Library and Archives close on public holidays and, for those who prefer research to the hullabaloo of Christmas Day, you are out of luck: they are also closed from 22 December to 1 January inclusive. (Their webpage on opening hours also provide details on their public holiday closures.)

Staff are available throughout the entirety of the listed opening times. Moreover, they are all extremely knowledgeable and highly qualified, particularly the archivists. When I was working on my own project, Lesley Hall, renowned expert on the history of sexuality and gender, was the archivist on duty. I had been reading her book, Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), just days before. You cannot really ask for more.

With respect to ordering items, everything is done online and is very easy. If you know what you are looking for, you can search for it directly on the comprehensive online catalogue and order from there. (This can be done both when you are at the Archives or when you are off-site.) You will need to order items before 3pm to view them on the same day. If you want to view an item on Saturday, it must be ordered before 4pm on Friday. The time it takes for items to arrive is somewhat variable: two hours is typical but be prepared to wait up to four hours. To ensure I had enough erotic dream materials to keep me occupied, I tended to order multiple items a day in advance – the Wellcome keeps everything on hold for up to two weeks.

When searching for items, be sure to note the “Access Status” listed. A large proportion of the archive material is sensitive in nature, particularly as it often refers to patients who may still be alive. “Open” means you should have no problem whereas “Closed” really does mean closed, no matter how important an item might be for your project. In between there is “Restricted Access”. This usually means you can view the item as long as you sign a form confirming you will not publish or distribute sensitive data. (As you can imagine, a lot of my material came under this heading. I could use patients’ dream diaries so long as I did not publish names, addresses or other information which might identify an individual.) Finally, when searching the catalogue you should note whether you need external permission to view an item. For my project, I needed a letter of recommendation from the Winnicott Trust in order to view Donald Winnicott’s papers.

You may, of course, arrive without a clear idea of what you are looking for. In this case, I highly recommend starting with the Wellcome’s own online sources guides. These are arranged thematically and point to archival holdings which may be of interest. They are great for leading research in unexpected directions and for finding sources you just would not have known about otherwise. This was exactly how I stumbled upon Griffith’s patients’ dream diaries – an absolute gold mine for my MPhil thesis.

Once you have your items, copying is relatively straightforward. Make sure you check with the archivist first, but unless your documents are particularly fragile, you can snap away with a digital camera to take images for personal use free of charge. (Mine is still full of lewd drawings from the 1950s!) You can also use the self-service scanner in the Archives Reading Room which is a very high quality machine. Each image costs 25 pence and you will need your own USB-stick to download the images – be sure to carry one with sufficient space! The Wellcome Archives also offer professional photography services if you require something more high end for publication. Unless you are publishing a lavishly-illustrated monograph, the self-service scanner should be sufficient.

Digitisation is just beginning in earnest at the Wellcome Archives. At the moment, there is the Wellcome Images picture library, which includes a large number of pictures taken from archival and manuscript sources. The drawings produced by Richard, Melanie Klein’s ten-year-old patient, can be found there, for instance. Seeing them in full colour at the click of the button certainly beats looking at the small black-and-white reproductions in Klein’s published work. (Indeed, this contrast proved significant: the material form of different mid twentieth-century psychoanalytic texts served to contrast different audiences and analysts in my thesis.)

Beyond the picture library, there are currently no other major digitised sources available. However, the Wellcome’s Modern Genetics and its Foundations 1863-2008 project is nearing completion. By the end of 2012, the archives of the Eugenics Society, the Biochemical Society, the Medical Research Council Blood Unit, as well as the papers of Francis Crick and Peter Medawar should all be online.

When it comes to taking breaks, you are in an ideal location. In fact, you may even be at risk of being tempted away from research for long periods at a time! The Wellcome Collection itself is just downstairs. This features two permanent exhibitions. First, Medicine Man, a display of Sir Henry Wellcome’s eclectic hoard of medical objects, from third-century phallic amulets to nineteenth-century forceps. Second, Medicine Now, an exploration of the development of medicine from 1936 to the present day. The Wellcome Collection also regularly holds temporary curated exhibitions on a particular theme, most recently on human enhancement. Both the permanent and temporary exhibitions are free to enter. And, if you are feeling the need to escape entirely from the history of medicine, it is only 15 minutes’ walk to the beautiful Regent’s Park, which also houses the London Zoo.

Refreshments-wise, you are once again spoilt for choice. There is a lovely (if slightly pricey) café near the front entrance of the Wellcome Collection. For a cheaper option, walk to Euston Station over the road where you can pick up a supermarket sandwich meal deal. Otherwise, try the lunch menus at the various Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants around Charlotte Street, about 10 minutes’ walk away. Just remember to head back and get some work done!

James Poskett
PhD Candidate
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge


Image: “The Front Elevation of the Wellcome Building in Euston Road, London” by ProfDEH, Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. From the Wellcome Library, March 12 2013:

    * * *

    The Wellcome Library will be undergoing major changes as part of the all-building development project announced earlier: http://wellcomelibrary.org/about-us/projects/development-plan/

    Here’s how the building works may affect you:

    Until 20 June: Business as usual; all normal services fully operational.

    20 June to early August: Full services will be running, but there may be some noise from the building works.

    Early August 2013 to summer 2014: We will be open for business, but there will be disruptions to services and some Library areas will be temporarily closed.

    Most collections will be available at all times, and online resources will be available to Library members as usual.

    If you are planning to visit the Library over the summer, you might find it useful to contact us (library@wellcome.ac.uk) in advance of your visit to discuss which materials you would like to consult and when you plan to visit to ensure your research trip goes as smoothly as possible.

    Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.

    All the very best for now.

  2. From the Wellcome Library, May 21 2013:

    * * *

    Following on from our earlier announcement about the Wellcome Collection Development Project, we can now give you more details about the building works which are scheduled to begin on 20 June.

    We’ve posted a blog entry giving you more details of the changes:

    If you’re planning a visit to the Wellcome Library over the summer, please check out the post to see how these changes to opening hours and services might affect your visit.

    The main change will be that the Library will closed on Mondays from 12 August to March 2014. Our Tuesday – Saturday opening hours will remain unchanged.

    Please feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions.

    All the very best for now,

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