New exhibits in the Wellcome Collection reflect historic scientific collections

A new temporary exhibit at London’s Health and Medicine Museum’s Wellcome Collection showcases work by artists Grace Ndiritu and Jim Naughten. Although seemingly covering different subjects, the combination of these two exhibits reflects how museums handle natural history and anthropological collections.

Times are changing for the Wellcome Collection. One of their permanent collections, Medicine Man, displays part of Sir Henry Wellcome’s massive collection of health-themed objects and art from around the world, but this exhibition closes on November 27.

Many objects in the Medicine Man exhibit were collected at auctions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and came from parts of the world that were under colonial rule. In 2021, the Wellcome Collection stated that “our museum and library collections, some of which are now jointly held with the Science Museum, still include many objects that have been unfairly taken from the people and communities who made them”.

In response to this reflection, they are evaluating their collection and considering new ways to display their artifacts and objects of medical history. This is an ongoing process and is linked to one of the new exhibits, The Healing Pavilion by Grace Ndiritu.

Ndiritu used some of the wooden panels from the Medicine Man exhibition space to create a Buddhist temple-inspired space with two large tapestries on opposite walls. One of the tapestries is based on a 1915 photograph of staff at Henry Wellcome’s private museum carefully holding skulls and masks originating from countries in the Global South. The other tapestry depicts a 1973 photo of staff at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin casually seated on a throne from the Kingdom of Bamum in Cameroon, which is on display in their museum.

Visitors are invited to enter the pavilion (shoeless) and consider how these images show the changing attitude towards anthropological collections and ask how much has changed since then.

In the other half of the space, Jim Naughten’s exhibition Objects in Stereo also offers visitors a unique perspective on museum collections through photographs taken in museum storage. At any given time, many museums display only a very small part of their collection, while the rest is in storage. The Science Museum Group, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum all used a storage facility called Blythe House (formerly the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank), but this facility is closing and all their stored items will have to be moved over the next few years.

Naughten got a chance to take a last look behind the scenes at Blythe House and created stereoscopic images of several works from the Henry Wellcome collection that are on long-term loan to the Science Museum and in storage at the facility.

He also took detailed, high-resolution overview photos of some of the storage areas to give an idea of ​​how the inventory is being cared for. This is an interesting way to see some of the many items that are usually hidden in the warehouse for various reasons. For example, some older items cannot be exposed to too much air or moisture, others may be toxic or have been treated with materials that protect their structural integrity but make them unsafe to touch.

Images from the repository highlight how much work goes on behind the scenes of a natural history or history science museum. And just like Ndiritu’s exhibition, it explores how museums handle the objects in their care.

To see Objects in Stereo and The Healing Pavilion, you can visit the Wellcome Collection until 23 April 2023. And if you’re very quick, you can still see the old Medicine Man exhibition for a few days before it closes.

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