If you, like me, have an unhealthy taste for depressing news, then you’ll have already heard about the Wellcome Collection’s decision to close its Medicine Man exhibition last weekend. The display, which featured an extraordinary range of unusual medical artefacts collected by the entrepreneur Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), has been permanently shut on the grounds that it ‘perpetuated’ sexist, racist and ableist myths, and failed to tell the stories of the historically marginalised. The decision has been cheered on by precisely nobody – both left and right, from what I can see, believe the decision will do nothing to make the world a better place. All it represents is yet another lost opportunity to learn (for free!) about our collective past – including, indeed, its many evils. So what exactly is the Wellcome Collection doing?

The Twitter thread in which the Collection announced its decision, a mere 48 hours before closing the display, offers a few clues. The museum, the thread explains, has long attempted to ‘give voice to the narratives and lived experiences of those who have been silenced, erased and ignored’ – by ‘using artist interventions’. But despite these, it says, the exhibition has only ever really succeeded in telling the story ‘of a man with enormous wealth, power and privilege’.

This can be interpreted in one of two ways. The first is that the museum simply didn’t do its job properly. It attempted to provide some historical context and discuss the experiences of those who might have been overlooked or exploited along the way (as it should), but ultimately failed, with people still somehow coming away with the impression that the exhibition was really just all about Henry Wellcome himself. The second, which I suspect is more likely, is that the curators genuinely think that no amount of commentary or context can ever possibly counteract the implicit message: that by displaying Wellcome’s collection, we’re tacitly condoning everything he ever did and stood for.

This is a very strange view, and one based on an especially garbled kind of Freudian thinking: not just that there are ‘hidden’ messages to be found in everything that we say and do, but that these will always have more of an effect on others than what we say explicitly. In other words, the curators seem genuinely to believe that what visitors learn at a conscious level – like uncomfortable stories about historic injustices – ultimately matter less than whatever coded messages they pick up from the basic fact that the exhibition exists in the first place. By this logic, the display must inevitably be a net negative for society, and should, therefore, be binned.

It’s an absurd argument, and one that, if it were taken to its logical conclusion, would require the abolition of all our museums – not to mention concert halls, libraries, galleries, and universities. But it’s founded on an assumption that runs surprisingly deep in many of our cultural institutions: that even well-intentioned, surface-level deeds are almost always really just masquerades for power. What really matters are all the subtle, unconscious biases secretly driving things underneath.

Is shutting down Medicine Man really what ‘progress’ looks like?

I’m all for a bit of soul-searching. But it’s very difficult to translate this kind of relentless mistrust of ourselves into anything positive. If what we say out loud ultimately counts for less than the things we unwittingly imply, we might as well all just sew up our mouths for eternity. If our good deeds are really just fronts for the unconscious evils secretly motivating us, we might as well stop trying to do anything useful at all. We should simply give in and accept Foucault’s famous dictum: ‘I think that to imagine another system is to extend our participation in our current system.’

Foucault himself was a vastly more impressive thinker than this unfortunate quote suggests – but today, a great many people seem to have taken it quite literally. It’s hard to know whether the team at the Wellcome Collection is among them, but the Twitter statement they produced was notable for its lack of any kind of positive vision for the future. No case was made, indeed, even for what should take the place of the terminated display – only the vague assertion that the museum needs somehow to ‘do better’.

And this is part of what’s so disappointing about the whole thing: just how uninspiring – and uninspired – it is. Closing the Medicine Man display is, supposedly, an urgent moral cause, a moment of great historical reckoning – and yet the Wellcome Collection can’t seem to write about it using anything other than the laziest of stock phrases, euphemisms, and management-speak. The sins of our forebears weren’t evil, they were ‘problematic’. People’s ‘lived experiences’ were ‘erased’. The exhibition ‘perpetuated’ tropes. If this is moral progress, it looks remarkably like a bureaucrat trying to figure out how to sound virtuous without saying anything of substance at all.

Which has led some critics to wonder: is the Wellcome Collection really driven by an ideological mission, or is it simply trying to pass off financial cuts under the guise of trendy progressivism? It’s hard to say. But that it should be so difficult to tell apart today’s supposedly radical politics from bureaucratic, managed decline only shows how insipid and negative the former has become.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s followed what Christopher Lasch once called the ‘improbable alliance of psychoanalysis and cultural radicalism’. In 1981, he wrote:

Freud puts more stress on human limitations than on human potential, he has no faith in social progress, and he insists that civilisation is founded on repression. There isn’t much here… that would commend itself to reformers or revolutionaries.

The assumption that subterranean purity matters more than our outward deeds will always prove a political dead end, producing no ultimate vision of the Good of its own.

So is shutting down Medicine Man really what ‘progress’ looks like? Is this the great, utopian vision of the future we’re fighting for? The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends, apparently, towards the shrinking of our public institutions: the closure of free exhibitions, the sacrifice of accumulated knowledge and the undermining of historical wisdom.

At the end of the Wellcome Collection’s thread comes a final request: ‘We want to do better. And we invite you to help us get there. Tell us: what’s the point of museums?’ Here’s an answer. Museums are places for the curious, for those with an open-minded attitude to learn. They aren’t supposed to do everything all at once, and that’s just fine.

The Wellcome Collection’s ‘self-reflection’ is no reflection at all: it is rote-learned and bureaucratic. Museums should be anything but.

QOSHE - Mad museums / The Wellcome Collection’s war on itself - Kit Wilson
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Mad museums / The Wellcome Collection’s war on itself

7 15 7
28.11.2022

If you, like me, have an unhealthy taste for depressing news, then you’ll have already heard about the Wellcome Collection’s decision to close its Medicine Man exhibition last weekend. The display, which featured an extraordinary range of unusual medical artefacts collected by the entrepreneur Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), has been permanently shut on the grounds that it ‘perpetuated’ sexist, racist and ableist myths, and failed to tell the stories of the historically marginalised. The decision has been cheered on by precisely nobody – both left and right, from what I can see, believe the decision will do nothing to make the world a better place. All it represents is yet another lost opportunity to learn (for free!) about our collective past – including, indeed, its many evils. So what exactly is the Wellcome Collection doing?

The Twitter thread in which the Collection announced its decision, a mere 48 hours before closing the display, offers a few clues. The museum, the thread explains, has long attempted to ‘give voice to the narratives and lived experiences of those who have been silenced, erased and ignored’ – by ‘using artist interventions’. But despite these, it says, the exhibition has only ever really succeeded in telling the story ‘of a man with enormous wealth, power and privilege’.

This can be interpreted in one of two ways. The first is that the museum simply didn’t do its job properly. It attempted to provide some historical context and discuss the experiences of those who might have been overlooked or exploited along the way (as it should), but ultimately failed, with people still somehow coming away with the impression that the exhibition was really just all about Henry Wellcome himself. The........

© The Spectator


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