A British museum says it is closing a free exhibit about medical history after 15 years over fears it is perpetuating ‘racist, sexist and albeist theories and language’.
The Wellcome Collection, which is based in London, has been accused of ‘cultural vandalism’ after it said it is scrapping its ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit, which has been on display since 2007, from today.
The charity which runs the museum, the Wellcome Trust, said the items ‘neglected to tell’ the stories of those ‘we have historically marginalised or excluded’.
It said it had instead been telling story of Henry Wellcome, a 19th century American pharmaceutical entrepreneur and medical artefact enthusiast who founded the collection.
It said that Wellcome, who was born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, was a man with ‘enormous wealth, power and privilege’ who had acquired hundreds of thousands of objects with the aim of ‘better understanding of the art and science of healing throughout the ages’.
These items include wood, ivory and wax models from around the world and a variety of cultures, some of which date back to the 17th century, as well as curiosities such as Charles Darwin’s walking sticks.
A man and woman stand in the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit, with a photo showing Henry Wellcome dressed in Indigenous people’s clothing behind
A collection of four Yoruba and Songye figures displayed in the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit
A painting depicting the so-called ‘Black Madonna’, a 12th century statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, in the Wellcome Collection
A display case showing a collection of artificial limbs to help explain the development of prosthetics in the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibition
Charles Dawin’s walking sticks, seen here with their skull hand, were also collected by Henry Wellcome
Henry Wellcome – from a log cabin in the US frontier to a Knight of the realm
An oil painting of 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 log cabin in Wisconsin and was raised by his parents as they travelled in a wagon and preached.
When he was young he took a keen interest in medicine, and at the age of 27, would set up Burroughs Wellcome & Company, a pharmaceutical firm in London.
This would later become one of the four large 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 at the age of 48 in 1895, Wellcome took full control of the company, setting up laboratories to help with research.
He would later become a British subject and was knighted in the 1932 Birthday Honours by King George V
Wellcome, who had one child, died of pneumonia at the age of 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 business, which continued to grow and developed life saving drugs for illnesses such as leukaemia.
In a Twitter thread the museum said it had decided to close the exhibit from Sunday, November 27, adding that it had recently been asking itself ‘what’s the point of museums?’
‘When our founder, Henry Wellcome started collecting in the 19th century, the aim then was to acquire vast numbers of objects that would enable a better understanding of the art and science of healing throughout the ages,’ it said.
‘This was problematic for a number of reasons. Who did these objects belong to? 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 disabled people, Black people, Indigenous peoples and people of colour were exoticised, marginalised and exploited – or even missed out altogether.
‘We can’t change our past. But we can work towards a future where we give voice to the narratives and lived experiences of those who have been silenced, erased and ignored.’
It added that it had used ‘artist interventions’ to try and do this with some pieces in the exhibit, ‘but the display still perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language’.
A Harold Copping painting of a black African kneeling in front of a white missionary was put in storage by the collection’s director Melanie Keen in 2019.
The Collection’s website says it ‘depicts colonial hierarchies and racial stereotyping – part of history that should not be forgotten, but which could not be sufficiently countered and contextualised in the Reading Room without re-affirming those oppressions’.
The museum added that the items in the collection ‘show all the extraordinary ways in which people, through time and across cultures, have sought to understand the workings of the mind and body, to protect themselves and care for one another’.
It said: ‘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. And the stories we neglected to tell were those that we have historically marginalised 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 fury online, with one angry patron calling it ‘an act of cultural vandalism without even having any idea of what will take its place’.
People on social media have criticised the museum’s decision to close the exhibit permanently
@RinseHold said: ‘If you hate your job then quit, recruit someone who isn’t disdainful of the collection. Yours is not to reason why.’
@NATO_Enthusiast wrote: ‘The point of museums is to showcase the past and provide context. “Problematic” exhibits belong there for that very reason. Instead of explaining what makes them “wrong” to your visitors, you just deprive them of the collection. That is antithetical to your mission.
‘If we only fill museums with exhibits that are up to modern moral standards, they will be quite barren indeed. The past was not perfect. But hiding the imperfections doesn’t help anyone.’
@PaulieTandoori added: ‘Museums exist to educate and inform about how things were and how they are now. By taking this decision, I sincerely think you’ve lost a great opportunity to make your points and deprived the public of the chance to learn about the things you talk about in your thread.’
@kodertj wrote: ‘Visited with my family this summer, and Medicine Man was the section they chose to spend the longest in. So sad that visitors in future will be denied access to actual historical artefacts, and only allowed to hear modern artists’ messages. That’s a gallery, not a museum.’