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Phantom Museum, The (2003)

Courtesy of Koninck Studios

Main image of Phantom Museum, The (2003)
The Phantom Museum: Random Forays into Sir Henry Wellcome's Medical Collection
35mm/Super 8, colour/black and white, 11 mins
Directors/AnimatorsQuay Brothers
Production CompanyKoninck Studios
ProducerKeith Griffiths
MusicGary Tarn

Cast: Stephen Quay (librarian)

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An exploration of the collections of medical paraphernalia amassed by Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936).

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The Phantom Museum was originally commissioned by the Wellcome Trust as a video installation for the British Museum exhibition Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome, which ran from June to November 2003. This provided an opportunity for the public to examine some of the rarer items in the extraordinary collection of American-born pharmaceutical pioneer Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), who assembled over 125,000 medical artifacts, many of which are currently stored in London's Science Museum and normally viewable by appointment only.

Typically, the Quay Brothers' film consists more of a series of impressions of the Wellcome collection than a guided tour, their approach summed up by its subtitle 'Random Forays into Sir Henry Wellcome's Medical Collection'. A linking device (shot on grainy black-and-white Super 8 stock) involves a man clad in a black suit and white gloves ascending staircases, warlking along corridors, switching on lights and investigating rooms full of cabinets bearing tantalising labels ('Shrunken Heads - Scalp').

Interspersed with these are much sharper colour sequences, depicting various objects in Wellcome's collection. Sometimes they're displayed as static museum pieces, sometimes rotated, and occasionally animated. Many of the exhibits are explicitly sexualised, from the diagram demonstrating the use of a chastity belt (next to an example of the real thing) to tender Oriental sculptures of human lovemaking. Many of the collection's many dolls come apart to reveal their anatomically-correct innards - one female body has a baby in her walnut-sized womb, connected via an umbilical piece of string.

Prosthetic arms and legs abound, in one case attached to a live human body, while there are plenty of dead ones glimpsed in the collection's storerooms, their lipless mouths fixed in a permanent grin. If the film is often unsettling, this is less because of the Quays' proven feel for the uncanny than for the way the Wellcome collection itself inescapably exploits our most fundamental fears: of birth, sex, mutilation and death.

The Quays originally edited the film to pre-existing recordings of the music of Czech composer Zdenek Liska (previously featured in The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer in 1984), but were unable to clear the necessary rights. In the final version, filmmaker-musician Gary Tarn provided a plangent semi-electronic accompaniment, occasionally interspersed with sound effects, notably in the shot of an old birthing chair and forceps being pressed into service on an invisible mother-to-be, whose baby can be heard crying as it emerges.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003'.

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Video Clips
1. Heads and tails (1:40)
2. Female matters (2:46)
Complete film (11:17)
Production Stills
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Quay, Brothers (1947-)
Channel 4 and Animation