The Wellcome Collection in London appears to be having an identity crisis, announcing the closure of one of its key exhibitions, branding it “racist, sexist and ableist” on Twitter, and asking “What’s the point of museums?”
The free museum, part of the Wellcome Trust, holds more than a million objects amassed by its founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, a 19th-century pharmaceutical entrepreneur, who sought to “enable a better understanding of the art and science of healing throughout the ages”.
The announcement will affect the permanent display Medicine Man, which was due to close for good on Sunday.
The exhibition showcases objects relating to sex, birth and death and includes anatomical models of the human body in wood, ivory and wax dating back to the 17th century.
On Twitter, the museum explained that its exhibition was “problematic” as it told a story “in which disabled people, black people, indigenous peoples and people of colour were exoticised, marginalised and exploited – or even missed out altogether”.
It is not the first time that the institution has tried to undo the self-identified wrongs of its founder. The Wellcome Collection previously introduced “artist interventions” in Medicine Man to “give voice” to those who “have been silenced, erased and ignored”.
What’s the point of museums?
Truthfully, we’re asking ourselves the same question.
— Wellcome Collection (@ExploreWellcome) November 25, 2022
But this too, it says, has failed. “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.”
The announcement was welcomed by some Twitter followers but attacked by others who viewed it as unnecessary “self-flagellation”, even “cultural vandalism”.
“Is this the prelude to whole museums closing because their collections aren’t woke enough?” asked one Twitter user.
Melanie Keen, the director of the Wellcome Collection, was appointed in 2019. A year later she pledged to be courageous in dealing with the most contentious items on display.
“It feels like an impossible place to be worrying about this material we hold without interrogating what it is,” she said at the time.
Ms Keen highlighted one painting of a black African kneeling in front of a white missionary called “A Medical Missionary Attending to a Sick African” (1916) by Harold Copping, which has since been put in storage on the grounds that it risked “perpetuating racial stereotypes and hierarchies”.
This will not, it appears, be the fate of the Medicine Man exhibits. The museum has promised it will transform how these objects are displayed through a multi-year project that will “amplify… erased or marginalised” voices.