In November, the Wellcome Collection closed their 'Medicine Man' gallery. In a Twitter thread, they acknowledged that 'the display still perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language.'

'Medicine Man' told history from a narrow, Eurocentric perspective. As such, Wellcome's decision to rethink its gallery is not a matter of erasing history but of deepening it. As they rethink their collections, Wellcome and others like it must remember that decolonisation is not a metaphor and that this move must be followed up by more concrete action.

Henry Wellcome and his collection

Henry Wellcome (1853-1939) was an American collector who amassed a fortune through his pharmaceutical firm. Through a network of collecting agents, Wellcome accumulated millions of objects over the course of his career.

In 1912, collecting agent Charles Thompson wrote a letter to his colleague Paira Mall, advising that he should not come home until 'India is completely ransacked.' Colonial thinking was a fundamental part of the feverish collecting in Wellcome's company. The 'Medicine Man' gallery is the culmination of this effort.

The 'Medicine Man' gallery is closed in an attempt to pivot away from an often violent Eurocentric colonial narrative

Around 15 years-old, it housed a selection of Wellcome's collection, focusing on the collector, with scant context regarding how the objects were acquired.

The myth of the heroic European male collector is pervasive in personal collection museums. Collectors are often portrayed as pioneering men with a 'passion for exploration.' Museums have been slow to tackle this narrative, which omits the networks of collectors that often relied upon indigenous labour and knowledge.

This portrayal also mutes histories of violence ubiquitous in 19th century collecting. One object in the gallery, a nail-studded statue from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is dated between 1882-1920. This encompasses 22 years of the Congo Free State, a notoriously violent regime that decimated over half of the country's population.

Displaying this object without context for its creation and acquisition allows the violence of this history to continue. Decontextualising objects suppresses public awareness of colonial violence, facilitating historical whitewashing that allows for continued denial of accountability.

Thousands of objects in Wellcome's collection, among millions in UK museums, were acquired...

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