May 28, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Review by Mikayla Hu (11th January 2023)

The Wellcome Collection at Euston Square officially closed one of its 15-year-old permanent exhibitions, Medicine Man, in November 2022. It was well known for its rich collection that displayed the history of medicine and healthcare from the 17th century to the present. Yet the museum decided to shut it down and have it reformed due to modern criticism towards the collection. A series of events are planned to reflect this historical exhibition’s critiques and legacy. I, Science was invited to the press viewing of two displays opening on the 24th November. We will unpack the history and future of the Wellcome Collection with you in the following two reviews. 

The Medicine Man gallery contained a wide range of collections from Sir Henry Wellcome, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who lived in the late 19th century. He was one of the co-founders of Wellcome & Co., where he made a fortune out of the mass production of medication and extended his business throughout the British territories. 

A portrait of Sir Henry Wellcome at the entrance of the Medicine Man gallery

Taking advantage of his wealth and social status, Henry Wellcome acquired items for his collection. From human remains to surgery equipment, his collection managed to unfold the history of medicine and discuss essential topics such as birth, death and sex. Meanwhile, his collecting practice grew from and fed back to a trading market driven by colonial exploitation. Peeking into the gallery days before its closure, we realised that his collection was notably personal. Wellcome’s male and privileged gaze makes its mark upon the entire exhibition. His selections conceptualise narratives of male dominance and European superiority.

As the Medicine Man gallery comes to a close, the Wellcome Collection has curated two temporary exhibitions which will remain open until the 23rd of April 2023. One of them, Objects in Stereo, is a project collaborated with the British photographer Jim Naughten. The project aims at revealing some behind-the-scenes aspects of museum practice, introducing a novel approach to display and exploring the conservation of museum collections.

In Objects in Stereo, you can see a variety of objects presented as “dual images”. These are special photos designed to be inspected using a stereoscope. This technique makes two-dimensional images appear three-dimensional, just like the 3D films we watch at the cinema. Holding the stereoscope is a good way of engaging the audience, who can be more focused on the displayed objects compared to conventional viewing. It is also a practical approach to presenting fragile, delicate things unsuitable for long-term display. 

The objects for display were a part of the objects loaned from the Wellcome Trust to the Science Museum and stored at the Blythe House, a store site closing soon. The storage of fragile materials and botanical specimens often requires conservation, precise labelling systems, and safety inspections. These practices have been essential to museum collection management. Before being transferred, some final moments of the storage and conservative facilities were captured and presented at Object as Stereo.

And from these behind-the-scenes photos, we, as the audience, can also begin to think more of museum practice. More conversations on the technical and ethical aspects of museology are invited, and we may expect to see a reflection on these issues in a new version of the medicine exhibition at Wellcome Collection. 

Bring these questions with you when visiting the Objects in Stereo, and you may find some new insights into collections, museums, and public engagement!

After 15 years of display, the Wellcome collection has ended the Medicine Man while presenting two new temporary exhibitions. In next week’s review, we will look at the other exhibition derived from the critical revisit of Medicine Man and continue to explore the history and reformation of museum practice.