As a medical student, I often used to work in the library of the Wellcome Collection on London’s Euston Road, taking breaks from my textbooks to explore the associated museum. Its core was a permanent exhibition called “Medicine Man,” which displayed the healthcare-related artifacts amassed and bequeathed by the Anglo-American pharmaceutical giant Sir Henry Wellcome (1853–1936). Together they told the moving story of our heroic, often futile, efforts—down the ages and across cultures—to understand the body and alleviate its sufferings.
In November, however, I had to make my final visit. The next day, “Medicine Man” was to be closed—“for ethical reasons,” explained a guide. A long thread on the museum’s Twitter account supplied more detail: their exhibits were collected by a man of “enormous wealth, power and privilege” in an era of European imperialism. Celebrating Henry Wellcome’s achievement served to marginalize and exclude others: “disabled people, Black people, Indigenous peoples and people of colour.”
But despite these, the collection had proved irredeemable.
Starting in 2021, the museum’s curators attempted to remedy these sins by means of “artist interventions”—short essays on blue plaques set beside the exhibits to provide a counternarrative. But despite these, the collection had proved irredeemable: it “still perpetuates a version of medical history based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language.”
“This is why we will be closing ‘Medicine Man’ for good,” concluded the Twitter thread.
Whether the “interventions” were ever intended to succeed seems questionable. The Wellcome’s current director, Melanie Keen, revealed her animus towards the collection when she took over its care in 2019, wasting no time in condemning its “foundation of white supremacy.” Items that she felt “challenged by on a personal level” were removed from public view. The following year, her office issued a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, speaking of the “institutional racism enmeshed within the fabric” of the museum.
Fashioned from exotic materials, they were symbols of imperialist networks of exploitation.
Reexamining the “artist intervention” plaques on that late November weekend was revealing. There was a uniformity of attitude and purpose, with all seeming to anticipate the ideological grounds now being given for the closure of “Medicine Man.” A Nigerian amulet occasioned discussion of “the inequalities of colonial exchange.” A casket meant to hold Henry Wellcome’s ashes was analyzed in terms of Foucauldian theories of power and found to be tarnished by its association with the British Empire. By exhibiting Napoleon’s toothbrush and other items from his sponge bag, the museum privileged the story of a single white man over those who had labored in the production of these luxurious objects. Fashioned from exotic materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell, they were symbols of imperialist networks of exploitation.
I was reminded of Cyril Connolly’s complaint against George Orwell: that “he could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.” Nevertheless, I would have been delighted to read the untold story of ivory and tortoiseshell traders in the nineteenth century as, I suspect, would Sir Henry Wellcome. But beyond airing its grievances, the plaque had nothing to say.
Yet none of the plaques communicated any actual information about the marginalized people in whom they professed interest.
They were all alike in this, speaking of “lived experiences” that had been “silenced, erased and ignored.” Yet none of the plaques communicated any actual information about the marginalized people in whom they professed interest. Instead, there were only the opinions of the authors, mostly offered in rambling essays heavy with jargon.
“Museums recentre the white cis-male body,” asserted another plaque; “Supremacy is justified through culture.” The author was Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford and a curator at that city’s extraordinary anthropological museum, known as the Pitt Rivers. Hicks’s plaque in the Wellcome exhibition commented on a fragment of skin from the embalmed body of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), whom it charged with “contesting the immediate emancipation of enslaved people.”
This accusation is deeply disingenuous. Even by today’s standards, Bentham should be championed for his forward thinking: a man who, over two hundred years ago, campaigned against slavery, colonialism, capital punishment, gender inequality, homophobic legislation, and even animal cruelty.
It is true that, following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Bentham advised caution with the process—never the principle—of emancipation. Rigidly consistent with his utilitarian beliefs, he speculated that conditions might temporarily be made worse for slaves if large numbers were freed simultaneously. But to present such a detail as the whole, while omitting the rest of Bentham’s story, reeks of intellectual dishonesty and a malicious agenda. “Time’s up,” Hicks concludes, in words that have proved suspiciously prophetic: “Just rewriting labels isn’t enough. . . . Dismantle Wellcome’s enduring colonialism, its white infrastructure.”
After “Medicine Man” was shut down, a storm broke on social media, during which Hicks leapt to the museum’s defense. But in place of his earlier polemic, he adopted a tone of measured deliberation, dismissing the “moral panic” that had erupted. He applauded the “clear and positive statement” from the Wellcome’s curators, who remarked that they would be “taking some time to consider how we will use this space in the future.”
Why could “Medicine Man” not stay open while the curators do their “considering”? And will they continue to draw salaries while not doing their job of exhibiting the collection? This is no small point: the Wellcome Trust has an endowment of $36 billion and is famous for its generous remuneration of senior staff. Is it not a question of public interest how much the trustees are paying their curators to ruminate while the collection goes undisplayed?
The museum’s director has said nothing to indicate she shares these concerns. In fact, Melanie Keen has been curiously quiet on social media, unlike many of her peers in the world of museum curation. But she did permit herself one Instagram hashtag: “#goodbyehenry,” she posted on the eve of the exhibition’s closure.
Recent events inspire little confidence, but let us hope whatever comes next at the Wellcome is as excellent as what has just been discarded. It cannot be beyond the ken of man to tell the stories of marginalized groups while also fulfilling the collection’s founding purpose: to promote public knowledge of the history of medicine and to honor the generosity of Henry Wellcome. Like all vastly successful men, he doubtless had his flaws, and these may be worth exploring. But first should come gratitude for one of the largest charitable bequests in the history of philanthropy.
The afternoon of my visit, a final talk was given by a junior museum curator. To my surprise, the impending closure of “Medicine Man” was barely mentioned. The speaker’s subject was actually a chastity belt on display in the collection, once thought to be medieval but actually a nineteenth-century fabrication intended to titillate. The talk included a disquisition on contemporary sex toys, especially those favored by devotees of sadomasochism. But its main thrust was the historical gender oppression of which the belt was a symbol, something in need of interrogation.
It was as predictable as all the other recent contributions of curators at the Wellcome. They promise to illuminate neglected narratives, but they are actually deeply parochial, curious about nothing beyond their own unvarying obsessions, whether with gender, race, or colonialism. Museum regeneration of this sort masquerades as progressivism, but compared with Henry Wellcome’s expansive vision of public improvement, it represents a regression into small-mindedness—most unwelcome indeed.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 6, on page 25
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