Why Wellcome closed its Medicine Man exhibition - and others should follow suit

Why Wellcome closed its Medicine Man exhibition – and others should follow suit

In November, the Wellcome Collection closed its Medicine Man gallery. In a Twitter feedthey acknowledged that “posting still perpetuates a version of medical history based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”.

Medicine Man told the story from a narrow, Eurocentric point of view. So the Wellcome’s decision to redesign its gallery is not a matter of erasing history, but of deepening it.

As they rethink their collections, Wellcome and others like him must remember that decolonization is not a metaphor, and that this movement must be followed by more concrete actions.

Henry Wellcome and his collection

Henry Wellcome (1853-1939) was an American collector who amassed a fortune through his pharmaceutical business.

Through a network of collecting agents, Wellcome has accumulated millions of objects during its career.

In 1912, collecting agent Charles Thompson wrote a letter to his colleague Paira Mall advising him not to return home until “India is completely sacked”.

The sepia portrait shows Henry Wellcome with cropped hair and a huge handlebar mustache.
Henry Wellcome photographed in 1890.
Henry van der Weyde

Colonial thinking was a fundamental part of Wellcome’s feverish corporate collecting. The Medicine Man Gallery is the culmination of this effort.

The 15-year-old housed a collector-focused selection from Wellcome’s collection, with little context on how the items were acquired.

The myth of the heroic European male collector is ubiquitous in museums of personal collections. Collectors are often depicted as pioneering men with a “passion for exploration”.

Museums have been slow to address this narrative, which omits the networks of collectors who often relied on indigenous labor and knowledge.

Studded vessel for nkisi strength, carved wooden figure with mirrored vessel, Bakongo people, West-Central Africa, 1882-1920.  Front three-quarter view.  White background
A studded wooden statue from the Democratic Republic of the Congo dated between 1882 and 1920.
Welcome collection, CC BY

This depiction also muted the ubiquitous stories of violence in 19th-century collecting.

One item in the gallery, a studded statue from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is dated between 1882 and 1920. This encompasses 22 years of existence of the Congo Free State, a notoriously violent regime that decimated more than half of the population of the country.

Exhibiting this object without context for its creation and acquisition allows the violence of this story to endure.

Decontextualizing objects removes public awareness of colonial violence, facilitating historical whitewashing that allows for continued denial of accountability.

Thousands of objects in Wellcome’s collection, among millions in UK museums, were acquired in violent colonial contexts and displayed for the public to admire or walk past, undisturbed. Many objects are sacred, intimate, personal. Many contain human remains.

Sepia portrait of Paira Mall in a suit, with a strong dark mustache.
Paira Mall received a letter from fellow debt collector Charles Thompson stating that he would not return home until ‘India was completely ransacked’.
Welcome Collection, CC BY-NC

Prior to the closure of Medicine Man, Wellcome attempted to introduce new perspectives into the gallery: alternative labels, artistic responses to objects, and critical engagements led by the Visitor Experience team.

These interventions showed an evolutionary attitude. However, as the museum recognizedit didn’t change the larger narrative of the gallery.

The shift from Wellcome-centric narrative to “the stories and lived experiences of those who have been silenced” is a necessary step forward.

The state of colonial collections in Britain

Wellcome has had relative freedom in the museum world thanks to its access to private funding.

In 2020, former UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden wrote to national institutions threatening to cut funding if they took “activist or politically motivated actions”.

As a result, alternatively funded museums such as Wellcome, Pitt Rivers Museum and the Powell-Cotton Museum have taken the lead on national museums in confronting their collections.

While it is important to diversify the perspectives in the galleries, the real decolonial action must pass through the active return of human remains and objects.

Looting was a tool of colonial violence, and only through this process can justice begin.

Exhibits from the Medicine Man collection are featured, including a display case with artificial limbs.
The now closed Medicine Man Collection Gallery in Wellcome.
Oussama Shukir Muhammed Amin, CC BY-SA

The Wellcome has a history of returning human remains, responding to claims from Maori/Moriori and Hawaiian communities. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has set up a partnership with Maasai representatives to discuss objects of Maasai origin and the Horniman Museum in London returned 72 objects to Nigeria in November.

More institutions need to follow these examples.

Those who are skeptical of restitution have asked: what would happen to museums if their collections were all returned? For most, that’s not a realistic risk.

The British Museum has 80,000 objects on display at any one time, just 1% of its entire collection.

If a museum has been drained by feedback, it would be a reflection on the historical injustices of the collection and a major accountability success.

This question goes back to the original from the Wellcome collection Tweeter – “What are museums for?” It is the job of today’s museum professionals and audiences to tackle this and broaden their perspectives and imaginations.

Emerging smaller museums, such as the Museum of British Colonialism, the Migration Museum and Queer Britain, have come to the fore as agents of social change that help represent and respect all of the stories that reflect the British community .

Museums are not neutral – the stories they tell and the objects they display are always an active and powerful choice.

a long way to go

Despite Wellcome’s positive steps, they need to do more internally to ensure their dedication to fighting racism. A summer report found Wellcome perpetuated systematic racism and described a pattern of discrimination, harassment and microaggressions faced by staff.

The report reflects the broader structures of institutional racism in the field of heritage.

The heritage sector has a lot of work to do before it can truly claim anti-racism progress.

Read more: Explained: what is systemic racism and institutional racism?

Museums must strengthen their commitment to creating more equitable and just societies. This includes following the advice of activists to repatriate colonial collections and foster equitable environments in their own communities.

Closing the Medicine Man Gallery was a good step forward, but there’s still a long way to go.

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