June 18, 2024


Art Shines Through

London Museum Axes 15-Year-Old "Racist” Exhibition

London Museum Axes 15-Year-Old “Racist” Exhibition

A British medical history museum has permanently closed one of its foundational exhibitions, citing its promotion of “racist, sexist, and ableist theories and language.” 

On Friday, November 25, the Wellcome Collection in London announced that the long-term exhibition Medicine Man would close after 15 years on view. Curated from the collection of its founder, US pharmaceutical mogul Sir Henry Wellcome, the show portrayed Wellcome’s interest in medical science through historical artworks and artifacts dating back to the 17th century. 

In a Twitter thread, Wellcome Collection staff claimed that the items on display reflected an “outdated” worldview that excluded female, nonwhite, Indigenous, and disabled perspectives.

“If we were curating the space for the first time today, we would not choose to display these items through the lens of a single person,” the museum said in a public statement. “This approach focused attention on the person who collected the objects, rather than on where they came from, who created them and why, and therefore their full context was obscured.”

Since 2007, Medicine Man has exhibited a cross-section of the 1.2 million items in Wellcome’s collection, which he placed in a trust before his death in 1936. Oddities include a wax death mask of former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a silver toothbrush believed to have been used by Napoleon Bonaparte, and a patch of skin belonging to English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Before closing, however, the exhibition had garnered a reputation for its more “eclectic” and outwardly colonialist displays. A 2011 Guardian report noted that a Portuguese executioner’s face plate appeared alongside a human skull from New Guinea, and that mummified human remains from Peru were set in a dimly lit gallery corner. 

Installation view of the Wellcome Collection’s recently closed Medicine Man exhibition (courtesy Wellcome Collection)

In a tweet on November 25, the museum noted “problematic” aspects behind the acquisition of some items, including Yoruba and Songye figures from West Africa. Other artworks in Medicine Man promote white savior narratives such as Harold Copping’s painting, “A Medical Missionary Attending to a Sick African” (1916), which depicts a White man and an apparitional Jesus Christ standing over an injured Black man. Moving forward, the institution claimed it will still display some of the items in different contexts but that programming will be oriented around diversity.

“The story we told was that of a man with enormous wealth, power, and privilege,” the museum said in a different tweet. “And the stories we neglected to tell were those that we have historically marginalized or excluded.”

Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush in the Welcome Collection (via Wikimedia Commons)

The closing of Medicine Man represents Wellcome’s larger efforts to center marginalized voices after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. For that reason, critics on social media have accused the museum of “cultural vandalism” and conservative officials have labeled staff members as “woke nutters.” Others have suggested that the items should remain on display as “evidence” against prejudices. Since joining the Wellcome in 2019, Director Melanie Keen has expressed commitment to bringing change to a “very difficult space.”

Beyond the museum, the Wellcome Trust — a charity that remains influential in UK medical research — recently reported that its 2020 pledge to tackle racism had fallen short. In March, a dedicated anti-racism expert group resigned over the slow implementation of agreed-upon principles. Then in August, the organization released a report concluding its responsibility for “perpetuating and exacerbating systemic racism” in medical research, with Trust Director Jeremy Farrar claiming the Wellcome is “still an institutionally racist organization.”

A wax Vanitas tableau resembling Queen Elizabeth I from the Wellcome Collection (via Wikimedia Commons)
The Wellcome Collection in London (via Wikimedia Commons)