A museum in London run by the Wellcome foundation health charity is to close one of its key galleries because it perpetuates “a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”.
The Wellcome Collection’s announcement on Saturday affects a free permanent display called Medicine Man, which includes objects relating to sex, birth and death and includes anatomical models in wood, ivory and wax dating back to the 17th century. These were collected by Sir Henry Wellcome who amassed more than a million items on the history of health and medicine.
“The very fact that these items have ended up in one place, the story we told was that of a man with enormous wealth, power and privilege,” the museum said on Twitter.
The announcement was welcomed by some Twitter followers but attacked by several others. “An act of cultural vandalism to close without even having any idea of what will take its place,” wrote one.
“Is there no one who can get rid of these cultural vandals instead or does the rot go all the way to the top? Is this the prelude to whole museums closing because their collections aren’t woke enough?” another asked.
The director of the Wellcome Collection, Melanie Keen, was appointed in 2019. A year later she pledged to be courageous in dealing with the most contentious items on display there. “It feels like an impossible place to be worrying about this material we hold without interrogating what it is, what narratives there are to be understood in a more profound way, and how the material came to be in our collection,” she said.
Keen highlighted one painting of a black African kneeling in front of a white missionary. “A Medical Missionary Attending to a Sick African” (1916) by Harold Copping, which she has since had put in storage on the grounds that it risked “perpetuating racial stereotypes and hierarchies”.
Other interventions have been made since then but the latest announcement said the Medicine Man display “still perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”.
“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.
“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. As a result we will close Medicine Man on 27 November 2022.”