The Wellcome Collection, the London museum run by the Wellcome Trust, is to permanently close a curated exhibition of medical artefacts amassed by its founder on the grounds that it ‘perpetuates a version of medical history based on racist, sexist and ableist theories . ”
The announcement, made on November 26, is for a permanent exhibition in the Wellcome Collection, a museum on Euston Road, London, which opened in 2007. The exhibition had been on display for 15 years and was titled Wizarda reference to its founder, Henry Wellcome, who died in 1936.
The exhibition was closed, definitively, on November 27. The future use of the artifacts remains unknown at this stage.
The decision was met with dismay by some members of the museum community and the general public who compared it to cultural vandalism.
Wizard showed a selection of select artifacts from the collection of Henry Wellcome, the trust’s founder and an American pharmaceutical entrepreneur whose company, Burroughs Wellcome & Company, eventually merged with other pharmaceutical organizations to form the drug giant modern GlaxoSmithKline.
Wellcome amassed over a million articles relating to the history of medicine throughout its lifetime. The Wellcome Collection was founded as a place to display his collection, which he left in trust in his will, to a visiting public free of charge. He also founded the Wellcome Trust, a registered UK charity which focuses on biomedical research. The charity is the UK’s largest, with assets of £36billion. The trust is credited with key discoveries in the development of drugs that fight the spread of certain cancers, as well as HIV.
Henry Wellcome’s collection was large and varied. The Wizard the exhibition included the possessions of famous historical figures: visitors could see a toothbrush used by French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte, shoes belonging to social reformer Florence Nightingale, the death mask worn by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the skull cane of Victorian naturalist Charles Darwin, founder of the theory of evolution, who considered the staff a ‘memento mori’ – a reminder of human mortality.
The exhibit also featured ephemera used by less ennobled people, such as lucky charms and amulets worn by British, Russian and Japanese soldiers during World War II. Or an illustration, originally created for the British newsmagazine Sphereshowing British soldiers being treated in a field hospital in Verdun, France, during the First World War.
But some of the artifacts in Henry Wellcome’s collection, and the way they were displayed in the museum, were “problematic” from the start, museum staff said.
“The story we told was of a man with enormous wealth, power and privilege,” the museum said during a Twitter feed released last week. The thread opened with the question: “What are museums for?” In fact, we ask ourselves the same question.
In a series of tweets and images, the museum made direct reference to a series of artifacts it considered racist. These include a 1916 painting by Harold Copping entitled A medical missionary caring for a sick Africanwhich depicts an African kneeling before a white missionary.
“The result was a collection that told a global story of health and medicine in which people with disabilities, black people, indigenous peoples and people of color were alienated, marginalized and exploited, if not completely ignored,” reads- we in the thread.
The closing of the exhibition “marks an important turning point, as we prepare to transform the way our collections are presented,” the Wellcome Collection said in a statement posted on its website.. The collection is now embarking on “a major project that will amplify the voices of those previously erased or marginalized from museums, bringing their stories of health and humanity to the heart of our galleries,” he said.
The museum appointed Melanie Keen as its new director in 2019. Upon her appointment, Keen said she questioned some of the objects in the museum, asked who they belonged to and explored how they had been acquired.
Keen said at the time: “It seems impossible to worry about this material we hold without questioning what it is, what stories need to be understood more deeply, and how the material came to be in our collection. “
Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archeology at Oxford University and curator at the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum, was first employed by the Collection to stage what they called “interventions” around artifacts. Hicks and other artists wrote texts that sought to situate the artifacts in a more contemporary form.
Alongside an artifact, a fragment of the skin of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Hicks wrote a caption which ended with the statement: “Time is up. It is not enough to rewrite the labels. Let’s face all the human remains that Henry Wellcome has collected. Dismantle Wellcome’s enduring colonialism, its white infrastructure.
In a tweet Hicks said: “Colleagues at Wellcome provide some of the vision and leadership that we need in the arts and culture sectors in the UK. The idea that a museum should never change with the times is perhaps the most ridiculous yet pernicious argument we see in the right-wing’s ongoing war on culture.
Other Wellcome Collection staff have defended the decision to close the exhibit. Danny Birchall, editor of the Wellcome Collection site, said in a tweet“I feel incredibly proud of my colleagues today, and widely appalled by the state of public discourse on museums in this country.”
It was a turbulent time of self-reflection for the Trust. Last August, he gave an account of a pledge he made to fight racism in June 2020, shortly after the death of George Floyd in the United States. In the August reportthe trust’s director, Jeremy Farrar, announced that the organization had “failed to fulfill the commitments we had made”.
An assessment commissioned by Farrar said the trust is “still institutionally racist”, concluding that harassment, discrimination and microaggressions against black staff members were still part of the organization’s culture. Farrar apologized for “unacceptable racist behavior” and committed to “a set of affirmative action principles applied to funding decision-making processes.”
The response from some quarters of the museum world has been furious, including accusations that Welcome Collection staff have failed to adhere to the terms set out in its own constitution.
Barbara Rich, London-based solicitor for 5 Stone Buildings, said highlighted the constitution of the Wellcome Trust, available on its website. In Clause 2(d) of Schedule A to the Trust Deed, the trustee’s undertaking to make the objects of the trust available “for use in the public interest, as the trustees may think fit , of any part of the Wellcome Collections”.
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