Ja Wellcome Collection has announced the closure of its Wizard gallery at the end of November with something bordering on triumphalism. “Goodbye Henry”, waves the director of the collection, facing a photo of its founder, Sir Henry Welcome, on Instagram. “What are museums for?” was the provocation of the museum Salvo on Twitter. “Really, we ask ourselves the same question.”
Some respondents thought the answer was simple: neither close the gallery nor patronize the public by removing exhibits that purport to perpetuate “a version of medical history…based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language.” But others applauded the decision; and still others have seen the complexity.
The Medicine Man gallery had been open for 15 years. It told the story of Wellcome’s collection through objects and legends, recently updated to reflect the museum’s malaise. A photograph of Wellcome (1853-1936) rose in a cowrie-shell headdress opened the show. He had a preserved body. He owned a painting of a black man kneeling before a white man. Both had already been deleted. Captions drew attention to racism, colonialism, the weirdness of collecting prosthetic limbs, and more. If it had ever seemed difficult to separate the Victorian collector from his collection, now it was even easier.
It seemed right to me that the homeless relics of a human being should be removed (as well as the mummies in the British Museum, displayed in nothing but a fragment of cloth). People from the past are not exhibits. But their cultures are: what they did, believed, thought, invented, wrote, hoped for. To that extent, it still seemed fascinating to see the medical instruments in Medicine Man, along with the votives, prosthetics, Napoleon’s toothbrush and all. So it’s disappointing to learn that this is all for storage now.
And to be replaced by what? Anyone who loves the Wellcome collection magnificent exhibitions – who unite art, life and medicine in the most imaginative way – will know that there are always two or more at once. In full view, the brilliant show on eyes and optics, runs until February 12 on the ground floor, and two new salons have opened on the first floor. Both, in their own way, are inspired by precisely this current and controversial theme: the history and content of the Wellcome Collection.
One is as elaborate as it is weak. It is by British-Kenyan artist Grace Ndiritu, the latest winner of the Jarman Prize for his strange and original films, whose theme ranges from Western tourism to shamanic performance and ecological disaster. Alas, the Wellcome features something else: a single-storey facility called The Healing Pavilion.
Ndiritu took two archival photographs from curators – at Wellcome in 1915 and at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in 1973 – and commissioned Flemish weavers to turn them into black-and-white tapestries in polyester and cotton. These are exhibited in a Zen temple lined with wooden panels from the Wizard Gallery.
Simply translating these photographs into a pair of tapestries doesn’t accomplish anything at all; indeed, the original footage is arguably more powerful as a firsthand recording of teams of ethnographers posing for the camera seated on African thrones or holding human skulls. To walk on the soft carpet of the temple, you must remove your shoes. The demanding labor of tapestry weavers seems wasted.
by Jim Naughten Objects in stereoon the other hand, is deeply absorbing and visually captivating. Naughten studied stereoscopic photography used by 19th century teachers to teach medicine and applied the technique, aptly, to the historical holdings of the Wellcome Collection.
Two images of the same object from slightly different angles appear in a single large-scale photograph. Hold a specially created viewer up to your eyes and you will see the body of the object in three dimensions. The beak of a Sri Lankan bird mask, hung outside a house to ward off disease, suddenly projects – piercingly – forward. The arrows of an old wooden statue of Saint Sebastian bristle in all directions, so that one feels all his physical torment.
Even better, the gilded angel from a European pharmacy, circa 1700 – tender, beautiful, her plaster hand now cracked – suddenly seems to reach out to you as if to offer her healing touch.
Naughten’s images are superbly crafted to convey the imagination and empathy involved in creating these extraordinary works. A life-size model of a human head is so lifelike you might recognize the real man on the street, with his mournful 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 directly inside the brain, into its shapes and cavities. This must have provided vital knowledge. Yet the man still seems to be himself and thinking; he is not just a specimen.
But Naughten’s sensitive observations are somewhat undermined by conservative captions. This one is mainly concerned with telling us that the head once belonged to the British Phrenological Society, and how racist the society’s appalling theories were. Perfectly accurate about the BPS, but what about the quality and character of the actual item?
Here is a picture of flint nodules which bear a curious resemblance to ankles or feet. They look like prehistoric votives, shaped by time and tide, and were apparently valuable as gout protection. A Croydon bank teller began collecting them in the early 20th century, along with accounts of their use. But instead of telling us how and where they were used (the pain supposedly going from body to stone), the legend bemoans the fact that we know the name of the cashier and not the hundreds of worker owners.
It is unnecessary and self-indulgent piety, much like opposing the “enormous wealth” of Henry Wellcome, as the museum on which it was built did in November. It feels like the museum speaks for itself. But the big question is what it will now allow audiences to see. All of the objects in Naughten’s images were photographed in the deep, 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 ★★★★