On a sunny Thursday afternoon in June 2021, I visited the museum of the Wellcome Collection in central London for the first time. The Wellcome Collection opened on Euston Road in 2007, and comprises a free museum, library and reading room. The institution is part of the registered charity the Wellcome Trust which funds scientific research into urgent global health issues, and the museum itself focuses on exploring the links between health, medicine, art and history. The collection is named for Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), who was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and collector of historical medical items from around the globe, and the thousands of objects that he acquired during his lifetime form the basis of the collection on display today. After reading on the Wellcome’s website that they “aim to challenge how we all think and feel about health”, I was interested to see how the museum might connect the legacy of Henry Wellcome to conversations about medicine in society today.
Entry to the galleries was swift and Covid-secure, with a clear one-way system in place. The galleries are located on the first floor of the building, accessible via stairs and lift. Taking a turn to the left from the top of the stairs, the first exhibition that the visitor encounters is ‘Being Human’, which combines modern artwork, photography and video installations to the purpose of exploring the human condition in the modern world. In a bright, open gallery, the exhibits are grouped into loose categories such as genetics, bodies, and environmental breakdown. The distinctions between the sections are porous, however, the exhibits scattered throughout the space rather than organised into neat lines of glass cases. As I walked around the galley, this layout seemed to encourage me to consider how the various themes explored in the exhibition intertwine in our experience of the world.
As a proponent of disability studies, I personally found one of the most engaging exhibits of ‘Being Human’ to be ‘Prosthetics’, which showed an array of medical devices used by people with impairments. The unglorified and practical items on display included prosthetic limbs, hearing aids and glasses, explained on the exhibition labels by the users that had donated them. Rather than simply describing their functional uses, each contributor provided a personal insight into their object; some expressed their dislike of them, others revelled in the independence that a medical aid could provide. In prioritising a narrative of personal value over functional use, I feel that this exhibit encapsulated the Wellcome’s aim to “challenge how we all think and feel about health” (author’s italics); this exhibit, and the ‘Being Human’ exhibition as a whole, does well to reflect real and personal experiences of health in the modern world, particularly when it concerns more sensitive topics such as dealing with impairment.
It was also heartening to see the consideration granted to accessibility in this gallery in particular. A number of interactive exhibits were designed to be touched, heard and smelled to encourage engagement from the widest variety of museum visitors (it must be noted that during the pandemic, users were encouraged to bring their own headphones to listen to exhibits and wipe down interactive panels before use). The exhibition labels also used braille script. In the future, the Wellcome might consider incorporating these ideas throughout their galleries, not only in the exhibition most focused on inclusivity in its themes.
A temporary installation affixed to ‘Being Human’ is particularly worthy of mention. ‘What does it mean to be human, now?’ was developed by the Wellcome’s Youth Programme in collaboration with the Copenhagen Youth Project and comprises five short films that discuss the reality of life during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each film was shown on an individual screen in a darkened room adjoined to ‘Being Human’. An initial stand-alone film uses poetry and video footage from Black Lives Matter protests in the UK to explore the fight for racial justice. The remaining videos present the accounts of four locals on how the pandemic has shaped their lives, dealing with issues such as healthcare, views on the political handling of the crisis in the UK and mental health. It was refreshing to view an installation so relevant to what it means to live today, in a new version of ‘normality’ that has raised so many questions about the human condition. For those unable to visit the gallery in person, the films are available online on the Wellcome’s website here: https://wellcomecollection.org/exhibitions/YKTDpxAAACEAGIb7
Leaving the ‘Being Human’ exhibition, a short walk across the hall leads to the second permanent exhibition which is entitled ‘Medicine Man’. Housed in a darkened space where a diverse range of items are displayed largely in glass cases, this exhibition was first assembled in 2003 at the British Museum to showcase Henry Wellcome’s acquisitions, before becoming the main permanent exhibition of the Wellcome Collection from 2007. A large text panel placed prior to entering the gallery space explains that in light of recent calls to decolonise the museum, in 2018 the institution began to reformulate this exhibition. The Wellcome now aims to highlight the colonial networks through which their namesake obtained these items, acknowledging that the display of global objects removed from their cultural context sustains a myth of European superiority. The current iteration of the exhibition includes new input from writers, historians, activists and members of the museum’s staff to draw attention to these deficiencies, paralleling the inclusion of ‘real’ voices that plays such a significant role in the two aforementioned exhibitions. This is a temporary arrangement, while a new exhibition is developed to replace ‘Medicine Man’.
The object cases in this exhibition were arranged thematically, moving from ‘creation and life’ to ‘funerary rites’, bodily modification to ancient votive offerings. This allows for an interesting juxtaposition of objects from different cultures and time periods that strays from traditional attempts to confine material culture to neatly designated geographical and chronological categories. Within the ‘bodily maintenance’ case is one of the more famous items in the collection: Napoleon’s toothbrush, boasting a carved silver-gilt handle and horsehair bristles. One of the new input panels accompanies this item, written by Anaïs Walsdorf of the museum experience team. Anaïs highlights how the association of Napoleon’s name with this object may arouse the visitor’s interest, but it has ultimately obscured the more important history behind the item’s creation, for without the exploitation of colonial land and labour the toothbrush would not exist.
Despite the original function and cultural significance of many items in the collection being lost in the process of acquisition, the Wellcome is now attempting to rediscover their lost pasts. A 19th century antelope horn amulet currently on display, for example, has been revealed to be a war object of potent power that was likely stolen, given that the owner (perhaps a Benin army general) would only have parted from it in death. This new, and yet original, narrative now juxtaposes the old exhibition label which incorrectly identifies the amulet as being a Nigerian cure for disease. Far from seeming like a temporary solution whilst a new display is developed, such new input panels in this re-evaluated exhibition are thought-provoking and often hard-hitting. The interaction between the original labels and these new contributions invite the viewer to consider how objects embroiled in a violent colonial history should be displayed, to best illuminate their unabridged pasts and acknowledge their central roles within their cultures of origin.
In her introductory text panel for ‘Medicine Man’, writer and historian Subhadra Das contemplates: “What is it about this one man that makes him so different from everyone else? The answer, in part, is power.” It would be easy to let the power of Wellcome’s famous name obscure the true histories of the objects he acquired, but Das asks the viewer to ‘dismantle Wellcome’ and focus instead on the experience of the diverse individuals that created, used and lost the items that he, often forcibly, acquired. The permanent exhibitions as a whole show that the Wellcome Collection, whose very name threatens to taint its collection with the stain of colonial violence, is actively making inroads to address the problematic provenance of its collection, overturning this to create an inclusionary museum experience that actively attempts to acknowledge every body, every culture and the full history of every object. One imagines it may be a number of years before this is fully achieved; however, a visit to the Wellcome Collection during this transformative stage in its development is exceedingly thought-provoking, and as a result very much recommended.
Entrance to the Wellcome’s galleries is free. Currently, you must book an entry ticket, and arrive at the museum within a 15 minute time slot. All galleries are accessible via lift. Large print guides are also available and are being cleaned frequently by staff to comply with Covid safety regulations. It is recommended to bring your own headphones with a standard jack to listen to audio exhibits.
The Wellcome Collection is a 2 minute walk from London Euston Station.
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Katie Davies is an incoming PhD candidate at The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where she recently completed her MA in History of Art. Her research centres on representations of disability and monstrosity in early modern print culture. When not working on the above, she can be found reading Austen novels, cross-stitching, and drinking endless cups of tea.
She can be found on Twitter at: @katie_davies9