Wellcome Collection, London After the controversial recent closure of its permanent Medicine Man exhibition, the Wellcome’s two latest shows uniting art, life and medicine mine the collection’s capacious history and contents with varying success
T he Wellcome Collection announced the closure of its Medicine Man gallery at the end of November with something approaching triumphalism. “Goodbye Henry,” waved the collection’s director, opposite a picture of its founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, on Instagram. “What’s the point of museums?” was the museum’s provocative salvo on Twitter. “Truthfully, we’re asking ourselves the same question.” Dinosaur Sculpture
Some respondents believed the answer was simple: neither to close the gallery nor to patronise the public by removing exhibits deemed to perpetuate “a version of medical history… based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”. But others applauded the decision; and still others saw the complexity.
The Medicine Man gallery had been open for 15 years. It told the story of Wellcome’s collection through objects and captions, lately updated to reflect the museum’s unease. A photograph of Wellcome (1853-1936) got up in a cowrie-shell headdress opened the show. He owned a preserved body. He owned a painting of a black man kneeling before a white man. Both had already been removed. Captions drew attention to racism, colonialism, the weirdness of collecting prosthetic limbs and so on. If it had never seemed at all hard to separate the Victorian collector from his collection, it was now even easier.
To me it seemed only right that the houseless relics of a human being be removed (along with the mummies in the British Museum, displayed in nothing but a fragment of cloth). The people of the past are not exhibits. But their cultures are: what they made, believed, thought, invented, wrote, hoped. To that extent it always seemed riveting to see the medical instruments in Medicine Man, along with the votives, the prosthetics, Napoleon’s toothbrush and all. It is therefore disappointing to hear that all of it is now destined for storage.
And to be replaced with what? Anyone who loves the Wellcome Collection’s magnificent exhibitions – which unite art, life and medicine in the most imaginative ways – will know that there are always two or more of them at once. In Plain Sight, the brilliant show on eyes and optics, runs until 12 February on the ground floor, and two new shows have opened on the first floor. Both, in their different ways, descant on exactly this current and controversial theme: the history and contents of the Wellcome Collection.
One is as elaborate as it is weak. It is by the British-Kenyan artist Grace Ndiritu, latest winner of the Jarman award for her strange and original films, ranging in theme from western tourism to shamanic performance to ecological catastrophe. Alas, the Wellcome is presenting something quite else: a walk-in installation called The Healing Pavilion.
Ndiritu has taken two archive photographs of curators – at the Wellcome in 1915, and Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum in 1973 – and commissioned Flemish weavers to turn them into black and white tapestries in polyester and cotton. These are displayed in a Zen temple lined with wooden panels taken from the Medicine Man gallery.
Simply translating these photographs into a pair of tapestries achieves nothing at all; indeed, the original images are arguably more powerful as a first-hand record of teams of ethnographers posing for the camera seated in African thrones or holding human skulls. To walk across the plush carpet of the temple you must remove your shoes. The tapestry weavers’ exacting labour feels wasted.
Jim Naughten’s Objects in Stereo, by contrast, is deeply absorbing and visually involving. Naughten has studied the stereoscopic photography used by 19th-century professors to teach medicine and applied the technique, aptly, to the historic holdings of the Wellcome Collection.
Two images of the same object at slightly different angles appear in a single large-scale photograph. Hold a specially created viewer to your eyes and you will see the object body forth in three dimensions. The beak of a Sri Lankan bird mask, hung on the outside of a house to ward off illness, projects suddenly – piercingly – forward. The arrows of an old wooden statue of Saint Sebastian bristle in all directions, so that one senses his full physical torment.
Best of all, the gilded angel from a European pharmacy, c1700 – tender, beautiful, its plaster hand now cracked – suddenly appears to reach right out towards you as if to offer its healing touch.
Naughten’s images are superbly conceived to give a sense of the imagination and empathy involved in the creation of these extraordinary works. A full-scale model of a human head is so lifelike that you might recognise the actual man in the street, with his lugubrious mouth and red-tipped nose. Part of his skull has been removed to show the brain behind the eyes.
Naughten’s stereoscopic image takes you right inside the brain, into its forms and cavities. This must have provided vital knowledge. Yet still the man seems to be himself, and thinking; he is not just a specimen.
But Naughten’s sensitive observations are undermined, somewhat, by the curators’ captions. This one is mainly concerned to tell us that the head once belonged to the British Phrenological Society, and just how racist were the society’s appalling theories. Perfectly accurate on the subject of the BPS, but what about the quality and character of the actual object?
Here is an image of flint nodules that have a curious resemblance to ankles or feet. They look like prehistoric votives, shaped by time and tide, and were apparently treasured as a ward against gout. A bank cashier from Croydon began to collect them in the early 20th century, along with tales of their use. But instead of telling us how and where they were used (the pain supposedly transferring from body to stone), the caption laments the fact that we know the cashier’s name and not those of the hundreds of working-class owners.
This is a pointless and self-indulgent piety, rather like objecting to Henry Wellcome’s “enormous wealth”, as the museum upon which it was built did in November. It feels like the museum talking to itself. But the great question is what it will allow the public to see henceforth. All the objects in Naughten’s images were photographed in the deep and dusty storage to which the Medicine Man exhibits have now been sent.
Star ratings (out of five) Grace Ndiritu: The Healing Pavilion ★★ Jim Naughten: Objects in Stereo ★★★★
Sculpture The Healing Pavilion and Objects in Stereo are at the Wellcome Collection, London, until 23 April 2023