Wellcome Collection, London Accused of Cultural Vandalism

Wellcome Collection Ran by the London Museum Gets Accused of Cultural Vandalism After Closing ‘Racist, Sexist and Ableist’ Display of Medical Artefacts.

Nov 28, 2022By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
Wellcome House
Charles Darwin’s walking sticks

 

Wellcome Collection, London runs throughout the Wellcome Trust. The collection will permanently take down a carefully crafted exhibit of medical artifacts that its founder gathered. The reason behind taking down the collection is “perpetuating a version of medical history based on racist, sexist and ableist theories”.

 

“The display neglects the marginalised and excluded” – the Wellcome Collection

Wellcome house
A collection of four Yoruba and Songye figures displayed in the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit

 

The display represents a dedication to Sir Henry Wellcome, the US-born pharmaceutical tycoon. Also, the “Medicine Man” exhibit is on display since 2007. The charity which runs the museum decided to close the exhibit because it ‘neglected to tell’ the stories of those ‘we have historically marginalised or excluded’.

 

Closing of the exhibition happened on November 27. The artifacts’ potential future use is still a mystery. A few museum community members, and the wider public, connected the display with cultural vandalism. Also, few asked “what’s the point of museums?”

 

“When our founder, Henry Wellcome started collecting in the 19th century, the aim was to acquire vast numbers of objects that would enable a better understanding of the art and science of healing throughout the ages”, the statement said.

 

The painting
The painting ‘A Medical Missionary Attending to a Sick African’

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“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?”, it continued. Everything belonged, as stated, to Henry Wellcome. He was also a man of “enormous wealth, power and privilege”. He acquired hundreds of thousands of objects with the aim of “better understanding of the art and science of healing throughout the ages”.

 

The collection includes models made of wood, ivory, and wax from various civilisations and countries, among these objects. Some of them even come from the 17th century. The collection also includes Charles Darwin‘s walking sticks. Over the course of his lifetime, Wellcome collected more than a million things pertaining to the history of medicine. He also founded the Wellcome Trust, a registered UK charity that focuses on biomedical research.

 

The Closure of the Display Marks a Significant Turning Point

Medicine
A display case showing a collection of artificial limbs

 

1916 painting by Harold Copping titled A Medical Missionary Attending to a Sick African is an example of racism. The painting shows a black individual bowed before a white missionary. “The result was a collection that told a global story of health and medicine. Disabled people, Black people, Indigenous peoples and people of colour were exorcised, marginalised and exploited—or even missed out altogether”, are some of the conclusions.

 

The closure of the display “marks a significant turning point, as we prepare to transform how our collections are presented”, the Wellcome Collection added. The collection is now embarking on “a major project that will amplify the voices of those previously erased or marginalised from museums”. It wants to incorporate their personal and health stories within exhibits.

 

2019 also saw the appointment of Melanie Keen as the museum’s new director. Keen promised to question some of the museum’s artifacts and find out who they belonged to. Keen said at the time: “It feels like an impossible place to worry about this material we hold without interrogating what it is, also what narratives should we understand in a more profound way, and how the material became our collection”.



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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.