What can we learn from the Wellcome Collection’s gallery closure… – Art Newspaper

On 27 November the Wellcome Collection in London closed its Medicine Man gallery—an eclectic display of items drawn from pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome’s early 20th-century accumulation of medical historical artefacts. Curators had been trying, the museum explained in a series of tweets, to rethink the particular exhibition in ways that better captured today’s sensibilities. But after research and reflection, they had concluded that it “still perpetuates a version associated with medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”. There seemed no alternative— the gallery’s doors had to shut permanently.

Full disclosure: I co-curated the Medicine Guy gallery, and so have a keen interest in the decision. But the particular following reflections are not so much about the closure of a distinctly old display, which undoubtedly was due for radical recuration, if not replacement. They stem instead from the existential debate about the raison d’être of museums that has mushroomed from Wellcome’s announcement.

I has been struck by one particular tweet Wellcome put out: “What’s the point of museums? Truthfully, we’re asking ourselves the same question. ” We scrolled through more than a thousand responses in order to see how people were grappling with this fundamental quandary. All too predictably, a pair of polarised responses screamed out: this had been a “brave” act, emerging from soul-searched consciences, combined with the much-needed willingness to make up for past wrongs; or, this was an act associated with “cultural vandalism” delivered simply by pseudo-professionals who should immediately find different jobs that they experienced the competence actually to perform. What I actually missed was anything approaching curiosity; simply no “hmm, hadn’t thought of that…” or “shoot me down if you want, but I was wondering…”.

Something I have been wondering about is what could be gained from concerning ourselves a bit more with what museums are good at , plus worrying a little less about what they might be good for ? The unedifying hour We spent ploughing through this online culture-skirmish brought to mind, by dint of its absence in these posts, one exceptional aspect of museums. Namely, their provision associated with open, unpredictable fora where visitors can move beyond the simplicities of either being with regard to or against something.

Beyond right and wrong

In gallery spaces, two-sided issues gradually get diffused—pulled here and there along less formulaic lines, when a spotlight, say, illuminates the baffling objet or complicated life. The fervent quest to distinguish correct from incorrect that suits some media is here swapped regarding something altogether messier, humbler and more intriguing. For surely one of the great social benefits we derive from these culturally charged spaces is the inspiring realisation that will as we stand next to another visitor transfixed by the same painting, the chances are usually that their own experience will be different to mine. At the best, the particular Wellcome Collection has repeatedly shown just how much can be achieved when adventurous curators have the confidence in order to work along with that potential.

Along with areas for contemplation and exploration, the other equipment museums deploy is, of course, the particular objects they display. A core part of the curator’s craft lies in finding and sharing exhibits that resist any rigid insistence that they should stand in for one idea, one perspective. After choosing an exhibit, curators with flair will next judge perfectly which usually other show should sit next to it: using juxtaposition in order to create a resonance, mutual illumination, or even, alternatively, the jarring contradiction. The masters of this art can magically excavate interesting insights or questions that will lurk beneath an exhibit’s surface. And frequently, they will do therefore by raising a smile or a frown.

We can shun error, or even we can believe in truth: two materially different ways by which to lead one’s life. The particular philosopher William James place this dilemma to an university audience in late 19th-century America. “Our errors… are certainly not such awfully solemn things. Within a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness associated with heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. ” For most of us though, it’s probably more a matter of balance than binary choice. But these days we seem increasingly paralysed simply by an eagerness to avoid error, plus rather reluctant to experiment in the name of seeking reality.

Calling away and redressing huge wrongs and offences built on past assumptions should be part of the particular museum mix. We have all learned much through being confronted with ugly truths that have for far too long already been masked or glossed over. And for some, removing these types of things from public view is a good important step. However, I am also drawn to a rather different approach, which involves an additional type associated with courage. Here the emphasis is upon doing cultural projects within public, curating opportunities in order to think aloud with things. Some of those experiments will no doubt turn out to be errors. But if we frequently attempt to create the most of exactly what museums are capable of—playing with enduring attributes of an institution now well into its third millennium—and remind ourselves of their distinct limitations whilst doing so, we may find demonstrations of what museums are usually for, without needing first to post it in less compared to 280 characters.

Ken Arnold is the director of Medical Museion, Copenhagen and a professor at Copenhagen University

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