The new exhibits in the Wellcome Collection reflect the historical science collections

The new exhibits in the Wellcome Collection reflect the historical science collections

The new temporary exhibition at London’s Museum of Health and Medicine Wellcome Collection features work by artists Grace Nderito and Jim Naughton. While they seem to cover different topics, the combination of these two exhibits reflects how museums deal with 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 huge collection of health-themed objects and art from around the world, but that gallery closes on November 27.

Many of the items in the Medicine Man Gallery were collected at auctions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and come from parts of the world that were under colonial rule. In 2021, the Wellcome Group reported that “our museum and library collections, some of which are now maintained in association with the Science Museum, still include many items that were unfairly taken from the people and communities that made them.”

In response to this thinking, they evaluated their collection and looked at new ways to show artifacts and items in medical history. It is an ongoing process and is linked to one of the new exhibitions, ‘The Healing Pavilion’ by Grace Ndiritu.

Ndiritu used some wood panels from Medicine Man’s gallery 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 the Henry Wellcome Private Museum carefully handling skulls and masks from countries in the Global South. The other tapestry depicting a 1973 portrait of staff at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin seated on the throne of the Kingdom of Bamum in Cameroon is on display in their museum.

Visitors are invited to enter the pavilion (without shoes) and reflect on how these images show changing attitudes toward anthropological groups and ask how much has changed since then.

In the other half of the space, Jim Naughten’s exhibition “Objects in Stereo” offers visitors a unique perspective on the museum’s collections through photographs taken in the museum’s storage facility. At any given time, many museums only display a very small part of their collection on display, with the rest stored. The collection of the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum had been using a storage facility called Blythe House (the former home of the Post Office Savings Bank) but that facility is closed and all their stored items will have to be moved for the next few years.

Naughten got a chance to get one last look behind the scenes at Blythe House and made holograms of several pieces from Henry Wellcome’s collection that had been on long-term loan to the Science Museum and stored in the facility.

He also took high-detailed general shots of some of the storage rooms to give an idea of ​​how the stock was taken care of. It’s an interesting way to see some of the many items that are usually hidden in storage for various reasons. For example, some vintage items can’t be exposed to much air or moisture, others may be toxic, or have been treated with substances that protect their structural integrity but make them unsafe to touch.

Pictures from the storage facility highlight the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for a natural history or historical science museum. And, like the Ndiritu exhibition, it explores how museums treat the items in their care.

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

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