June 22, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Article by Aleksandra Higson 22nd January 2023

Imagine this; you find yourself wandering around a museum and a gallery has caught your eye. “The Healing Pavilion,” an intriguing title. You are guided to take a pair of headphones off the wall and turn towards the wooden structure. The ‘pavilion’ is a temple-like, carpeted space with a round seat at the centre. Having taken off your shoes, you step over the threshold. Feeling the soft carpet beneath your feet, you step towards the centre. You sit, fumbling with the audio controls, trying to get comfortable. Then the voice starts and you listen. The voice has a soft rasp. It begins by telling the raw history of what is hanging a few feet away. As your breath begins to slow, your eyes close and the story takes hold.

Listen to the guided meditation here

The wooden panelling making up the pavilion (seen in the photo below) has been taken from Medicine Man, a gallery which has since been closed. It marks the move towards a more reflexive museum space that considers current perspectives on historical issues. Read more about the museum’s story in part I of this article series.

Woman listens to an audio guide inside ‘The Healing Pavilion’, photographed by Aleksandra Higson 2022

In this exhibition, visitors sit between two large tapestries. Each contains a black and white group portrait whose woven faces gaze at each other as they pose with museum objects. On one side, the tapestry depicts a group of British museum workers holding objects from the so-called “Hall of Primitive Medicine”. The 1915 photograph was taken at Henry Wellcome’s private museum, where he had amassed a wide range of objects originating in the Global South. The workers hold human skulls, ceremonial masks and sculptures. Some seem to be cradling them with a sense of care, others hold them with pride and authority. The yellow border surrounding the image is made up of a thread that is woven behind the entire image, giving it a hint of sepia colour. The colour represents the joy of Colonial achievements, reflecting the attitudes of the time. However, yellow also signifies danger. This stylistic choice may be hinting at the cautious mood of the artist as she reflects on the problematic practices of the past. The tapestries reveal behind-the-scenes snapshots of museum workers, inviting viewers to think about what goes on in museums today.

The Twin Tapestries by Grace Ndiritu 2022, commissioned by the Wellcome Collection, CC-BY-NC-ND. Left: Repair (originally photographed in 1915). Right: Restitution (originally photographed in 1973).

The second tapestry is surrounded by pink, mirroring the playful mood of the photo. Taken in 1973, the image depicts German museum workers posing on a plinth, sitting on the Mandu Yenu throne of the Cameroonian Kingdom of Bamum. Though official records say that it was gifted to German troops for their protective efforts in 1884, sources reveal that it was stolen through coercive means. In the photo, workers hold the powerful object with a sense of ownership and playfulness. They casually sit on top of and lean against the throne in a way that looks shockingly disrespectful to the modern viewer. Interestingly, the pink border surrounding ‘Restitution’  subtly alludes to the Pink Triangle, a Nazi badge for homosexuality which was used in concentration camps in the second world war. Though the exhibition itself does not display much in terms of written explanations, the accompanying booklet provides more information. In this way, Ndiritu allows viewers to think for themselves before being guided about the context in which the photos were originally taken.

By transforming the photographs into large woven tapestries, the artist adds a physical weight to them. Ndiritu chose to house these textile pieces in a zen pavilion. This offers a Buddhist-inspired space to reflect on the tough histories. Instead of blaming past peoples for what is occurring today, the exhibition seeks to build awareness of power imbalances, allowing visitors to think about how these might still be perpetuated today. It is important to note that some of the objects seen in the tapestries have since been lost. The rest continue to be displayed in European museums. The Wellcome Collection has thousands of objects from all over the world, however most are kept in the UK. Yet, the museum has begun to repatriate specific objects of special value to their countries of origin.

Case of clay masks in the Medicine Man Gallery, photo by Aleksandra Higson 2022.

Sadly, many of the objects in European museums are of unknown origin and meaning. Though scholars are working hard to recover their heritage, objects have lost their cultural ties and their true functions are difficult to re-discover. This museum visit reminded us of why thinking about the past remains important in the present. Galleries are paces filled with physical beauty, but also embedded with a deep history of violence. The Healing Pavilion is a place of peace and reflection. It is not designed to induce judgement or anger, but simply invites you to slow your breathing and contemplate the tapestries.

Woman views “Restitution” in The Healing Pavilion, photograph by Aleksandra Higson, 2022.

We encourage you to visit the Wellcome Collection and experience the exhibitions first-hand. The Healing Pavilion will remain open to the public until April 2023. To learn about the next door exhibit, Objects in Stereo, please see part I of this article duology.