29 November 2022

Not Wellcome here: our museums need defending from censorious activists


One of the stranger features of the ‘culture war’ is that it appears only ever to be being waged by one side. The backlash against this or that progressive initiative is the culture war, but the initiative itself – despite being explicitly aimed at changing the culture – is not.

The Wellcome Collection’s decision to scrap their ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit at just a couple of days’ notice is the latest example of this strange pattern. The Trust has decided to hide away the collection of its founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, because the display of artefacts compiled and presented by dead white men is, allegedly, problematic – in this case “racist, sexist and ableist”.

You can read the Wellcome Trust’s original Twitter statement here, and their somewhat more evasive formal statement here. Both exhibit intellectual distaste for the basic concept of museums, especially those assembled (as so many are in the United Kingdom) by great Victorian collectors and philanthropists.

Perhaps surprisingly for an organisation that bears his name, the statement suggests deep discomfort with foregrounding the work of its own founder: ‘If we were curating the space for the first time today, we would not choose to display these items through the lens of a single person, Henry Wellcome’. (Note the refusal to use his title.)

Meanwhile, on Twitter:

‘But by exhibiting these items together – the very fact that they’ve ended up in one place – the story we told was that of a man with enormous wealth, power and privilege. And the stories we neglected to tell were those that we have historically marginalised or excluded.’

This is a ridiculous statement. The Wellcome Trust exists solely due to the work of Sir Henry Wellcome. It is built entirely on his name and his fortune, and its work today cannot be separated from it. If the current trustees of the Trust are uncomfortable with an institution built on such foundations, they should resign.

Had the Trust wished to try and skate over the closing of the Medicine Man display as a normal museum reorganisation – as its more disingenuous online defenders attempted to do – that would probably have been easy enough to do. Had the closure been announced a few weeks or months in advance, and accompanied by less grandstanding, it would probably have flown under the radar.

But the decision to shutter Medicine Man with just two days’ notice, preventing most people who might have been tempted in by the last chance to see it from actually doing so, was too obviously censorious.

We don’t yet know what is going to replace it. But given the Trust is happy running word-salad plaques like this, from the author of The Brutish Museums, we can probably hazard a guess that it will tend toward the shrill, didactic, and relentlessly on-message; suspicious of the average museum-goer and far less willing than the outdated ‘here is a room full of interesting things’ model to let people draw their own conclusions.

Actions such as this will also likely be noticed by today’s super-rich, who might previously have been tempted to bequeath their fortunes after death to a charitable foundation. Is the legacy-minded billionaire more or less likely to do this knowing that, perhaps mere decades after their death, the organisation will be parasitised by activists determined to actively denigrate their name and work?

As Wellcome is a private organisation, there aren’t likely to be many things the Government could do, even were it so inclined – although if the Trust seemed unlikely ever to exhibit Sir Henry’s collection again, they would do worse than simply nationalise it and entrust it to the British Museum.

But this sort of American-imported nonsense is unlikely, alas, to confine itself to a single institution. Ministers would do well to start thinking now about what steps can be taken to inoculate publicly owned museums against such activism, and how charitable status could be used to exert a countervailing influence on collections which are private but enjoy substantial tax advantages.

An update or extension of the British Museum Act, to allow ministers to stop valuable collections being dissolved and scattered overseas, should also be considered.

There should also be a much more concerted effort to make sure that people who actually value our museums (and can reconcile themselves to the Victorian foundations of their collections) are installed on their boards where possible – before their collections are locked away for good.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.