Art in an emergency

The Wellcome Collection misses the opportunity to highlight our public health crisis

The Healing Pavillion at the Wellcome Collection. PHOTO: WELLCOMECOLLECTION.ORG

Before arriving at the Wellcome Collection one biting January evening, I walked past University College Hospital a few doors further up the Euston Road. I looked up to see the nurses’ strike in full swing, emblematic of the perma-crisis which has engulfed the NHS. Keir Starmer’s recent comment that the NHS is “not just on its knees, it’s on its face” neatly sums up how bad things have got.

Closing the fifteen-year-old Medicine Man gallery followed concerns it was “racist, sexist and ableist”

As a free museum that, in its own words, aims to “challenge how we all think and feel about health” and is funded by the third richest charitable institution in the world, the Wellcome Collection has taken on a new urgency of late, with new exhibitions that question its identity. This is underlined by the high-profile announcement at the end of last year that the institution was closing its Wunderkammer-style display of medical miscellany – thereby thrusting itself into the museum culture war, complete with some performative soul-searching on Twitter. The decision to close the fifteen-year-old Medicine Man gallery followed concerns it was “racist, sexist and ableist”, and the announcement was accompanied by the tweet: “What’s the point of museums?”

You can see their rationale. The Medicine Man display had cast the museum as a home of historic, healthcare curios and oddities, making it feel like the medical version of the idiosyncratic Sir John Soane Museum – but with the early twentieth-century Anglo-American pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome swapped in for the eighteenth-century architect.

The now closed Medicine Man display

The Wellcome’s new direction brings its wider role into focus, begging the question of what role art (and by extension museums) can play in enriching our understanding of health, humans and, ultimately each other, amidst a public health crisis. The museum’s answer lies in its flagship permanent gallery, Being Human, situated on the building’s first floor. Visiting the other day, my overwhelming impression was that the display focused too much on deconstructing humans, both literally and figuratively. In an attempt to understand our common humanity, it reduces us to bodily functions and base instincts. It does, however, successfully call for greater engagement with our environment and empathy for the marginalised.

Summarising humanity in one room is a tall order, and credit should be given for the exhibits that urge us towards a more sympathetic understanding of our fellow humans. For me, one of these was a video work by the late Katherine Araniello, whose work deals with negative representations of disability. Pity, 2013, is no exception, depicting Araniello dressed as the notorious Spastics society collection box (which Hirst would later go on to copy), periodically asking passers-by for “pity”, set to a jaunty Beatle’s cover sung by the artist herself.

Still from “Pity”, 2013, by Katherine Araniello

It’s an arresting work and caught me by surprise, probably as it notably lacks the universalist tendencies of the other exhibits, which can feel like art made to illustrate science. One prime example is Heather Dewey-Hagborb’s Stranger Visions, which resembles the kind of silicone face mask you imagine a Blade Runner replicant using to hide their robot identity. The work is a portrait made of DNA samples found from discarded cigarette buts and chewing gum. The point is it’s a purely fictional portrait, to illustrate the fact you can’t accurately use genetics to determine appearance. But it’s a punch that doesn’t quite land.

The gallery is broadly divided into four sections: Genetics, Minds & Bodies, Infection, and Environmental Breakdown. Infection didn’t gel for me: there was a jukebox playing songs from across the world that relate to illness, a semi-abstract rendering of the bacteria in your microbiome and a downright weird (and authorless) “Faecal Transplant Kit” where the necessary “commercially available products” had been assembled including a sieve and a blender. The caption reads “this is everything needed for a faecal transplant: where poo from a healthy person is swallowed or inserted into the gut to increase the variety of bacteria.” Genuinely, what is the point of this?

Maybe it is unfair to expect such a collection to be a galvanising public force to put momentum behind more support for the NHS and those that work for our public health. But it’s my feeling the Wellcome does only half of the job it needs to: it deconstructs human health and bodies, without raising them up – without showing us the power and joy of a healthy, tolerant society.

For art that responds to public health emergencies more movingly and hopefully, I thought instead of some passages from Olivia Laing’s book Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency. In particular she highlights two artists who could have been included in such a display: Derek Jarman and David Wojnarowicz. For Laing, Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage – made when he was dying of AIDS – embodied the kind of urgent creative act that brought hope amidst despair. “Would there be a future?”, she writes about Jarman tending his garden. “What to do? Don’t waste time. Plant rosemary, red-hot poker, santolina; alchemise terror into art.”

David Wojnarowicz’s protest jacket

Similarly, the artist and AIDs activist David Wojnarowicz – popularly known for the photograph of him in a denim jacket with the words “IF I DIE OF AIDS – FORGET BURIAL – JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE FDA” printed on the back. Laing explains his motivation for making art while dying as an acute desire to produce objects that could speak, testifying to his presence when he no longer could. When Wojnarowicz did die of AIDS, his friends scattered his ashes on the lawn of the White House.

“For our time is the passing of a shadow, and our lives will run like sparks through the stubble” – Derek Jarman

Both Jarman and Wojnarowicz make work that speaks of the tragedy of disease and the danger of stigmas – as the Wellcome Collection aims to. But each makes work that inspires us to act and not repeat past mistakes, an urgency that doesn’t come through in Being Human. Perhaps the Wellcome Collection should more closely align with the Wellcome Trust’s work (which has sponsored AIDs research, for example) within the collection.

Derek Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage

On a positive note, the temporary exhibitions currently at the Collection embody this urgency. The Healing Pavilion and Objects in Stereo (both on until 23 April) are an indirect response to the closure of the Medicine Man display, and deal emphatically with the role museums can play in our lives. The former is a new commission consisting of two tapestries within a pavilion, based on archival images from Wellcome Collection and the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, which depict the historic mistreatment of African objects.

Objects in Stereo is made up of photographs taken by Jim Naughten during a visit to Blythe House – then home to objects from Henry Wellcome’s collections which were on long-term loan to the Science Museum Group. The exhibition presents a new perspective into the practice of keeping a collection, and asks what it means to keep and care for museum objects. Indeed, both exhibitions invite us to come up with ideas about what museums mean to us. I was reminded again of a passage in Olivia Laing’s writing concerning what art can do to change us:

“…this makes art sound like a magic bullet, which should reorganise our critical and moral faculties without effort, while simultaneously obliterating free will. Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It’s work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.”

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

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Art, Arts & Culture, February 2023

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