Visit to Wellcome Institute Collection

Display including portrait o Henry Wellcome, text headed Medicine Man and various pieces of scientific glassware

Laila Benhaida, Community Archivist, reflects on our visit to London.

On 5 May we took up an invitation to visit the Wellcome Collection Museum and Library in London to learn more about their collections development, exhibitions, research and cataloguing processes as well as their approach to tackling lack of diversity in the sector.  The invitation came after members of the Wellcome team visited us to learn more about our proactive, ethical collecting approach, the way we work with community groups to document their heritage and how we have created new entry level archive trainee posts aimed at people from Global Majority backgrounds.

Members from across the Wellcome’s team delivered some great presentations highlighting important aspects of their work which includes designing and curating inclusive exhibitions, research into how to deliver anti-racism and anti-ableism training to staff and their ongoing work to re-describe historic collections which were shaped by racist and ableist views.  One of the main issues with this task is that many objects lost provenance due to historically being taken out of their social and cultural context.  There is a lot of work to be done to reconnect the objects with the people they mean something to, and this is something the Wellcome Collection are very upfront about.

One of the presenters, Teresa, said during her presentation, “We are all conditioned by the system in which we exist’.  We all carry our own bias and this made me reflect on my own; it’s true that every day we are complicit in a system that perpetuates racism and ableism.  It’s conditioning we subconsciously follow unless we consciously remind ourselves during our daily lives.

In gallery, transparent model of standing human body wit harms raised, showing bones and internal organs

Just before my train back to Manchester I had time for a quick wander around Wellcome’s two permanent exhibitions, Being Human and Medicine Man.  It was interesting to see the two different models: Being Human which is based on a social model and Medicine Man which is not, both giving very different experiences.  The Medicine Man exhibition is a cross section of objects amassed by Henry Wellcome reflecting the (very biased) human interest in health and body.

I noticed new additional descriptions provided by writers and historians placed next to some of the objects which unpick the philanthropist and Eurocentric views of Henry Wellcome, revealing the colonial roots of the objects.  Henry Wellcome has often been described as a humanitarian and doing what he did to better the world when in fact, during his quest to build his mass fortune and pharmaceutical empire, indigenous people and those with disabilities were exploited and marginalised.

Wellcome Collection are undertaking some great work to counteract the harm created by a significant figure of our past and also to tackle the racist structures embedded in their vast organisation.  However, as the presentations demonstrated, there is no easy fix; such dismantling requires true commitment and for this work to be made a priority across all organisational activities.

As I left the exhibition, I read something which made me think of other cultural institutions I have visited in the past:

 ‘’How different would this place look if, rather than building a shrine to one man, we shifted our focus to remember all the other people here?” [Additional context dismantling Wellcome by Historian and Writer Subhadra Das at the Medicine Man exhibition]

Dismantling Wellcome. Of all the people on display in this gallery Henry Solomon Wellcome stands out. His body isn't here but his name is everywhere. What is it about this one man that makes him so different from everyone else? The answer, in part, is power. during his lifetime Wellcome harnessed the power of science to build a pharmaceutical empire, His advances in medical research and technology, along with the immense wealth he put behind them, in turn powered the British Empire. Like sciences, museums have also been used as tools of empire. Museums are magical places. They turn power into wonder and - through the language they use and the ideas they choose to highlight and ignore - they turn some people into things. The message of this gallery is clear: you would not be standing her looking at all of these wondrous things were it not for Henry Wellcome, who bought them and paid for them to be here. Wellcome died in 1936. He is survived by his money and his museum, both of which serve to extend his power beyond his life. The real thing that sets Henry Wellcome apart - in this gallery and beyond - is how the museum chooses to treat and remember him. ’How different would this place look if, rather than building a shrine to one man, we shifted our focus to remember all the other people here? Subhadra Das Historian and Writer
Text by Subhadra Das at the Medicine Man exhibition