A British museum says it is closing a free medical history exhibition after 15 years for fear it perpetuates ‘racist, sexist and albeist theories and language’.
The Wellcome Collection, based in London, has been accused of ‘cultural vandalism’ after it said it was scrapping its ‘Medicine Man’ exhibition, which has been on view since 2007, from today.
The charity that runs the museum, the Wellcome Trust, said the items “have been neglected to tell the stories” of those “we have historically marginalized or excluded.”
It said it had instead told the story of Henry Wellcome, a 19th-century American pharmaceutical entrepreneur and medical artifact enthusiast who founded the collection.
It said Wellcome, born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, was a man of “vast wealth, power and privilege” who had acquired hundreds of thousands of objects for the purpose of “a greater understanding of the art and science of healing throughout the world.” the ages’.
These items include wood, ivory and wax models from around the world and a variety of cultures, some dating back to the 17th century, as well as curiosities such as Charles Darwin’s walking sticks.
A man and a woman stand in the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit, with a photograph behind them showing Henry Wellcome dressed in indigenous people’s clothing
A collection of four Yoruba and Songye figures on display in the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit
A painting depicting the so-called ‘Black Madonna’, a 12th-century image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, in the Wellcome Collection
A showcase displaying a collection of artificial limbs to help explain the development of prosthetics in the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit
Charles Dawin’s canes, seen here with their skull hand, were also collected by Henry Wellcome
Henry Wellcome – from a log cabin in the American frontier to a knight of the realm
An oil painting by Henry Wellcome in the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit
When Henry Solomon Wellcome was born in August 1853, few could have predicted where he would end up.
The child of a missionary, Wellcome was born in a cabin in Wisconsin and was raised by his parents as they traveled in a wagon and preached.
When he was young he had a keen interest in medicine and at the age of 27 he would go on to found Burroughs Wellcome & Company, a pharmaceutical company in London.
This would later become one of four major companies that have since merged to form GlaxoSmithKline.
Along with his colleague, Silas Burroughs, Wellcome became one of the first in England to sell medicine in the form of tablets.
After Burroughs died in 1895 at the age of 48, Wellcome took full control of the company and set up laboratories to help with research.
He would later become a British subject and was knighted in the 1932 Birthday Honors by King George V
Wellcome, who had one child, died of pneumonia aged 82 in 1936 and established the Wellcome Trust in his will.
The Trust used the profits to fund charitable activities while continuing to run the pharmaceutical company, which continued to grow and develop life-saving medicines for diseases such as leukaemia.
In a Twitter thread, the museum said it had decided to close the exhibit from Sunday, Nov. 27, adding that it had recently wondered “what’s the point of museums?”
“When our founder, Henry Wellcome, started collecting in the 19th century, the goal then was to acquire vast numbers of objects that would allow a better understanding of the art and science of healing across the ages,” the statement said.
This was problematic for several reasons. Whose were these objects? How were they acquired? What gave us the right to tell their stories?
The result was a collection that told a global story of health and medicine in which the disabled, Black people, Indigenous peoples and people of color were ostracized, marginalized and exploited – if not overlooked altogether.
We cannot change our past. But we can work towards a future where we give voice to the stories and lived experiences of those who have been silenced, erased and ignored.”
It added that it had used “artist interventions” to try to do this with some pieces in the exhibition, “but the exhibition still perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and skillful theories and language” .
A painting by Harold Copping of a black African kneeling before a white missionary was put into storage in 2019 by the collection’s director, Melanie Keen.
The collection’s website says it “depicts colonial hierarchies and racial stereotypes – a part of history that should not be forgotten, but which could not be adequately refuted and contextualized in the reading room without reaffirming those oppressions.”
The museum added that the items in the collection “shows all the extraordinary ways in which people, through time and in different cultures, have tried to understand the workings of the mind and body, to protect themselves and to care for each other’.
It read, “But by displaying these items together—the fact that they ended up in one place—the story we told was that of a man of immense wealth, power and privilege. And the stories we failed to tell were the stories we historically marginalized or excluded.
‘We want to change that. We want to do better. And we invite you to help us get there. Tell us: what’s the point of museums?’
The decision has sparked outrage online, with an angry patron calling it “an act of cultural vandalism without even a clue as to what will replace it.”
People on social media have criticized the museum’s decision to permanently close the exhibition
@SpoolHold said, “If you hate your job, quit your job, recruit someone who doesn’t disdain the collection.” Yours is not to reason why.’
@NATO_Enthusiast wrote: ‘The purpose of museums is to showcase the past and provide context. “Problematic” exhibits belong there for precisely that reason. Instead of explaining to your visitors why they are “wrong”, simply deprive them of the collection. That is contrary to your mission.
‘If we only fill museums with pieces that meet modern moral standards, they will indeed become quite bare. The past was not perfect. But hiding the imperfections doesn’t help anyone.’
@PaulieTandoori added: ‘Museums are there to educate and inform about how things were and how they are now. By making this decision, I honestly think you’ve missed a great opportunity to make your point and have deprived the public of the opportunity to learn more about the things you’re talking about in your thread.”
@kodertj wrote: ‘Visited with my family this summer, and Medicine Man was the section they spent longest in. So sad that in the future visitors will be denied access to real historical artifacts and only allowed to hear the messages of modern artists. That’s a gallery, not a museum.’