What’s the point of an exhibition? or ‘How to Wellcome change in the museum space’

As I write this in late November 2022, academic and museum Twitter has just seen an almighty row about the Wellcome Collection‘s decision to close and replace its ‘Medicine Man’ gallery. (In fact, ‘row’ probably isn’t even the right word for it – we need a new word for these Twitter events, something that encompasses row, mass trolling event, and collective whinge.) Responses ranged from positive enthusiasm, to deeply unpleasant and unacceptable trolling, threats and abuse. Articles were written in newspapers, and various media interviews were undertaken.

Storm in a Twitter thread

Much of this reaction was driven by a specific Twitter thread, put out by the Wellcome Collection to publicise the closure of the Medicine Man gallery. The Wellcome Collection thread began ‘What’s the point of museums? . . . Truthfully we’re asking ourselves the same question.’ It continued with a discussion of the issues of colonialism, racism, ableism, and sexism with the Wellcome Collection generally and the Medicine Man gallery specifically. It then announced that the Medicine Man gallery would be closed and a new exhibit developed to replace it. In the final tweet readers were asked what they thought a museum was for and, by implication, what they thought should replace the Medicine Man exhibit. The responses include a vast number of angry, abusive, and derisive comments, many describing the thread and closure of the gallery as ‘woke’, ‘postmodernist’, ‘poststructuralist’, ‘communist’, and ‘leftie’. The responses also included a fair few references to ‘book burning’, ‘statue toppling’, and even ‘ethnic cleansing’. So far so typical of a certain section of 2020s society that is obsessed with ‘culture wars’ and views any change in the status quo as a personal attack on their identity. I have huge respect and sympathy for the Wellcome Collection’s social media person who received all these responses.

So great was the vitriol and abuse that the Wellcome Collection felt it necessary to put out a statement on the closure, clarifying their position. They reiterated that galleries are regularly refreshed, the collection remains fully accessible online, and objects continue to be visible via request to the library, in other exhibitions at Wellcome, and on loan elsewhere.

Personally, I’m quite glad they’re closing ‘Medicine Man’. Although the Wellcome statement claimed that ‘the world is very different now to when [Medicine Man] opened’ 15 years ago, I remember feeling uncomfortable about the name when the gallery opened. I thought it was rather inappropriate given that ‘medicine man’ conventionally refers to an Indigenous practitioner of traditional medicine. In a process analogous to the orientalism of the Eastern cultures, the term also evokes a variety of negative and racist colonialist assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes that derided Indigenous medicine and ‘medicine men’. I’m sure the original creators thought it would be ‘cute’ to call the Wellcome gallery ‘Medicine man’ in reference to Henry Wellcome. But to me, it feels inappropriate to call an exhibit about a European collector of Indigenous medical objects by a term for an Indigenous medical practitioner that was coined during the othering of Indigenous medicine by European anthropologists.

As the Twitter thread made clear (and I agree) the origins of the Wellcome collection (and many others) come with their own problems in terms of the original owners of the objects, the context in which they were removed, purchased, or otherwise obtained, and the ethical right to display these objects. The focus on Henry Wellcome in the Medicine Man gallery made these objects props in the story of a male European collector, and further excluded, marginalised, and exploited many cultures and groups whose objects were present in the exhibition. Despite further labeling and artistic additions, the Wellcome Collection felt the Medicine Man gallery ‘still perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language’ and is therefore closing the exhibition and replacing it. The Twitter thread formed part of the publicity for the closure on 27 November 2022, and solicited ideas about how they could do better in the future.

The disgraceful abuse and trolling undoubtedly reflected the extreme political opinions of the same section of society that has decried ‘political correctness’ under various terms since I was in school. I venture to suggest that anyone abusing a social media account for ‘cultural Marxism’ isn’t likely to be very concerned with the niceties of museum practice. Nevertheless, as the Wellcome’s follow-up statement indicated, the outrage exposed misconceptions about galleries, collections, and exhibitions that are present in society at large, and these are worth exploring and clarifying.

‘Museum’ is not the same as ‘Exhibition’

There are three terms that are often used interchangeably; ‘Museum‘, ‘Collection’, and ‘Exhibition’. The Wellcome Twitter thread opens with the question ‘What’s the point of museums?’. This is an extremely important question, particularly in terms of the issues of colonialism, racism, sexism, and ableism at the heart of the Medicine Man gallery. However, the focus of the Wellcome Twitter thread is a ‘permanent’ exhibition – the Medicine Man gallery – not the entire museum. The difference between ‘museum’ and ‘exhibition’ or ‘gallery’ appears to have been lost to various readers. ‘Museum’ is the overarching term for the collection, exhibits, galleries, catalogue, buildings, and everything within it. The Medicine Man gallery, which has just closed and is about to be revised, is a type of ‘permanent exhibition‘.

The Medicine Man gallery is an exhibition because it’s a specific set of objects, laid out in a certain way, with relevant labels to tell a story. It’s permanent because it was created without a specific end date, on the assumption that it would last many years and possibly decades. It is ‘permanent’ in comparison to ‘temporary’ exhibitions, like the Wunderkammer exhibition at Southend Museum. Temporary exhibitions have much shorter terms of perhaps a year or so at most, and a planned end date. However, no ‘permanent’ exhibition is ever truly ‘permanent’ in the same way that no job is ever truly permanent. Even with a ‘job for life’ people eventually retire, and so even permanent exhibitions are eventually dismantled, revised, or altered. The Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum is one of the oldest permanent exhibitions still on display and images from the late 19th century look remarkably similar to the gallery today. But these superficial changes apart, the gallery has undergone many revisions over the centuries. Within my lifetime new information boards have been added, the Nebamun wall paintings have been conserved and moved upstairs, and the Rosetta Stone has been moved from the south end to the east entrance and placed behind glass.

Changes to a ‘permanent’ exhibit are not ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘vandalism’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, or any of the other ridiculous or abusive complaints made on that Twitter thread. It’s perfectly normal to regret the change to much-loved displays, or the movement of popular objects, but we shouldn’t confuse our personal preferences or nostalgia for museological truth. As a child, I loved the original display of the Nebamun tomb paintings in a little room off the Egyptian Sculpture gallery, but I recognise that the revised display of the conserved paintings is much easier to see and better for the paintings themselves. It’s necessary for displays to be changed and revised, and offers opportunities for objects to be conserved and cases upgraded. Such revisions always reflect current ideas, theories, and approaches!

Photograph of a section of wall from an ancient Egyptian tomb showing a painted scene of a man hunting in the marshes from a papyrus boat with his wife and child accompanying him.
‘Hunting in the marshes’ tomb painting from the tomb of Nebamun, as displayed now in the British Museum after conservation EA 37977(Author photograph)

‘Exhibition’ is not the same as ‘Collection’

More importantly, the revisions to, or (as in the case of the Medicine Man gallery) replacement of, a permanent exhibition are specific to the gallery space. Objects that are removed from display remain part of the museum ‘collection’. A lack of understanding about the difference between objects on display and those that remain part of the collection but are in storage appears to be a general issue. It was also a source of confusion during debates about National Trust collections. This is why the Wellcome Collection’s follow-up statement on 28 November stated clearly that objects will continue to be freely accessible in a variety of locations, including other galleries and exhibitions in the museum, in the online catalogue, and can be requested for viewing in the library. Objects from the Medicine Man gallery will likely find their way to other galleries and exhibitions in the future, and if not they will remain in store and available to be viewed on request in the Wellcome library. These objects have not been destroyed, sold, or ‘disappeared’. Like most of the collection, they have simply been removed from this gallery and placed on display elsewhere or in storage. Museums almost never have enough space to display all their collection, and most are held in stores. Such objects are commonly accessible on request.

So what is the point of an exhibition?

Exhibitions tell stories, that is their point. In this respect, the Medicine Man gallery reflects a point I made in a previous post, that modern museum galleries with their narrative curated displays are just as susceptible as Wunderkammers to perpetuating elite, white, male, Europeanist views of the world. The Wellcome Collection has decided that the story told by Medincine Man needs to be so substantially revised that the exhibition must be replaced. This is not some kind of wanton destruction. Permanent exhibitions are regularly revised and replaced reflecting new ideas and practices. All the objects will remain part of the collection and accessible whether or not they are on display. This replacement will inevitably incorporate current best practice in terms of the display of objects and the inclusion of voices from groups that were previously excluded. This is not historical revisionism. How could it be when the objects have always formed part of the collection? It will simply be a different narrative, a different story, and hopefully a more honest and inclusive one. That is the point of an exhibition.


Various museological definitions can be found at https://tfaoi.org/aa/5aa/5aa24.htm

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Related posts

  • What’s the point of an exhibition? or ‘How to Wellcome change in the museum space’
  • Egyptian Artefacts in the Southend Museum
  • Wunderkammer: Southend’s Cabinet of Curiosities

One thought on “What’s the point of an exhibition? or ‘How to Wellcome change in the museum space’

  1. Pingback: What sahw you? ‘Mummies’, ‘Mummified people’ or ‘Mummified remains’? – Scribe in the House of Life: Hannah Pethen Ph.D.

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