Ableism, sexism, & racism forces exhibition at London museum shutdown
The Wellcome Collection's purpose was to display the founder's collection of items pertaining to the history of medicine.
London museum "The Wellcome Collection" is permanently closed as its curated display of medical artifacts acquired by its founder “perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories.”
The decision on Saturday to permanently shut down the display, part of the Wellcome Collection which opened in 2007, came after the public likened it to cultural vandalism.
The display had been showing for the last 15 years under the title "Medicine Man", in reference to its founder Henry Wellcome who died in 1936. Wellcome, a US pharmaceutical entrepreneur whose company, Burroughs Wellcome & Company, merged with several pharmaceutical organizations to form the UK drugs company GlaxoSmithKline - a merger of Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham.
The Wellcome Collection's purpose was to display the founder's collection of items pertaining to the history of medicine. The Wellcome Trust, the largest charity in the UK that focuses on biomedical research not only has assets of £36 billion but is also known for its findings in the development of drugs to fight the spread of some cancers and HIV.
Objects in "The Medicine Man" display included 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-shaped walking stick of Victorian naturalist and evolution theory founder Charles Darwin who believed the stick was a reminder of human mortality.
Some artifacts were considered “problematic", museum staff said. In a Twitter thread, the museum published last week: “The story we told was that of a man with enormous wealth, power and privilege,” adding: “What’s the point of museums? Truthfully, we’re asking ourselves the same question.”
But by exhibiting these items together – the very fact that they’ve ended up in one place – the story we told was that of a man with enormous wealth, power and privilege.— Wellcome Collection (@ExploreWellcome) November 25, 2022
And the stories we neglected to tell were those that we have historically marginalised or excluded. pic.twitter.com/YYgr5xyl3J
The museum further pointed to artifacts it believed were racist, such as a 1916 painting that illustrates an African person kneeling in front of a white missionary by Harold Copping titled 'A Medical Missionary Attending to a Sick African.'
“The result was a collection that told a global story of health and medicine in which disabled people, Black people, Indigenous peoples and people of colour were exoticised, marginalised and exploited—or even missed out altogether,” the tweets stated.
Read more: London Medical School found to be built on pure colonial ideology
On their website, the Wellcome Collection released in a statement that the shut-down of the exhibition “marks a significant turning point, as we prepare to transform how our collections are presented” and that the collection is now partaking in “a major project that will amplify the voices of those who have been previously erased or marginalised from museums, bringing their stories of health and humanity to the heart of our galleries."
Melanie Keen, appointed by the museum in 2019 as director, vowed on her part to investigate who the objects belonged to and in what ways were they obtained. "It feels like an impossible place to be worrying about this material we hold without interrogating what it is, what narratives there are to be understood in a more profound way, and how the material came to be in our collection," she said.
Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford and a curator at the University’s Pitt Rivers museum, Dan Hicks, was appointed by the Collection to stage ‘interventions’ around the artifacts.
Hicks wrote in a statement, “Time’s up. Dismantle Wellcome’s enduring colonialism, its white infrastructure.”
The professor also tweeted: “Colleagues at Wellcome are offering some of the vision and leadership we need in the UK arts and culture sectors. The idea that a museum must never change with the times is perhaps the most ludicrous and yet pernicious argument we’re seeing in the right’s ongoing War on Culture.”
colleagues at Wellcome are offering some of the vision and leadership we need in the UK arts and culture sectors— Dan Hicks (@profdanhicks) November 27, 2022
the idea that a museum must never change with the times is perhaps the most ludicrous and yet pernicious argument we’re seeing in the right’s ongoing War on Culture
Editor of the Wellcome Collection website, Danny Birchall, echoed Hicks in a tweet: “Feeling incredibly proud of my colleagues today, and largely appalled at the state of public discourse about museums in this country.”
Feeling incredibly proud of my colleagues today, and largely appalled at the state of public discourse about museums in this country https://t.co/Io2UMykOvk— sʞɔıɹʇ snɹʇıɔ puɐ sǝɯıl uɯɐp 'sǝɯıl (@dannybirchall) November 27, 2022
Just this past August, the Trust reported a pledge it vowed to take against racism right after the death of George Floyd in the US. Its Director, Jeremy Farrar, stated the Trust had “fallen short of the commitments we made” - as he added that the Trust is “still institutionally racist."
Harassment and discrimination against Black staff members still was an integral part of the organization’s culture, for which Farrar apologized and labeled as “unacceptable racist behaviors,” committing to “a set of positive action principles applied to funding decision-making processes."
The exhibition is permanently closed as of November 27 and the fate of the artifacts remains unknown.