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Wellcome Collection closes ‘racist, sexist and ableist’ exhibtion

King Charles and Camilla attend exhibition at the V&A

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A medical museum in London has closed a fifteen-year-long exhibition citing concerns the exhibit used “racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”.

 

The exhibition depicted a collection of objects with reference to the medical tradition. Sir Henry Wellcome, the museum’s original patron and namesake, was a US-born pharmaceutical tycoon who had built the collection over his lifetime and travels across the globe. 

For fifteen years the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibition has displayed these objects. However, museum staff have decided that contentious objects like a 1916 painting titled “A Medical Missionary Attending to a Sick African” depicting an African person kneeling in front of a white missionary, are part of a history of racist medical intervention which has no place in the museum. 

 

The Welcome Collection announced its decision in a series of Tweets: “What’s the point of museums? Truthfully, we’re asking ourselves the same question.”

 

“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.”

 

“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.”

It continued that although the exhibition told a story of people “through time and across cultures [seeking] to protect themselves and care for one another,” simultaneously it perpetuates a colonial narrative that of a man who amassed “wealth, power and privilege”.

 

Some commentators disagree with this assertion, Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, tweeted: “Did he have advantages as a white male? Sure. But he seems to have been a genuinely brilliant man who rose from humble origins.”

Tom Canham, an LGBTQI activist also disagreed with the decision, tweeting: 

 

“I…don’t agree with this

 

Yes, he used his wealth, power and privilege to pull together the pieces. But the pieces themselves are important and tell history in and of themselves.”

 

The Wellcome Collection Charity was founded after the death of Sir Henry Wellcome using his wealth to continue pioneering medical research. Wellcome is credited as inspiring research which later produced the leukaemia drug, immune suppressants for organ transplants, and antivirals such as AZT – the first drug approved to treat HIV. 

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 Although the exhibit showcasing his various objects will be taken down, the charity continues its work.

 

Meanwhile, at the museum, the Medicine Man will be replaced with some items reorganised for another project to “amplify the voices of those who have been previously erased or marginalised from museums, bringing their stories of health and humanity to the heart of our galleries.”

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