Inside the Collection

Suppository of Wisdom

Photograph of Albarello (apothecary jar)
Albarello (apothecary jar), Faenza-type maiolica (tin-glazed eartheware) painted with St John Baptist, Italy or Germany, c 1600.

A recent statement made by a politician, ironically prefaced by the phrases smart, well-educated, and experienced, about a ‘suppository of wisdom’ got us in the Powerhouse Museum curatorial department thinking about what this capsule of information might be. The Museum’s collection has objects which represent so many aspects of human endeavour that it can be both a pain and a pleasure to work with. Well, not really. The pain, which is a mere topical fissure, is that the collection is vast, both temporally and numerically, and museological practice was not always designed for general and open access. The pleasure is that the collection is vast, both temporally and numerically, and because museological practice was not always designed for general and open access, we have the opportunity to be constantly surprised by what the collection holds. Of course, we have objects relating to suppositories. Pharmacists in the previous two centuries, and well before, had their fingers in more than just dispensing medical preparations. Apothecaries, as they were known – Discount Apothecary Warehouse doesn’t quite have the commercial ring that would work nowadays – did not get their medications from wholesale pharmaceutical manufacturers, but had to make up their own preparations. Apothecaries trained and experimented and developed preparations which only they and their trusted colleagues had knowledge of, and they were anal about the exactitude of the materia medica. So here was a clue: a very particular knowledge was required to be a member of the Society of Apothecaries. And, apothecaries made suppositories! Suppositories in themselves are not very remarkable. Their design is wholly utilitarian. Their beauty is in their constituency. Analgesic, anaesthetic, anti-inflammatory, perfumery, curative balm. These are all treatments that would be valuable in the political realm. So this could be an insight into the runny, exudative thinking behind the suppository of wisdom statement. Even with this thought, like an itchy, venous swelling in the mind, more research was still required to push through. How did apothecaries make suppositories? Thankfully, the Museum’s collection delivered. Objects which on first appearance look like they would not be out of place amongst a display of the traditional instruments of parliament, turn out to be suppository moulds. Precision made, multifarious, and lacking the indignity of what eventually slides out of them. Could these be the motifs of the Suppository of Wisdom? Maybe more research is needed. And anyway, this is just one curator’s opinion, and you know what they say about opinions…

Photograph of Brass suppository mould
Brass suppository mould

Written by Damian McDonald, assistant curator, science and technology

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