On 27 November the Wellcome Assortment in London closed its Drugs Man gallery—an eclectic show of things drawn from pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome’s early Twentieth-century accumulation of medical historic artefacts. Curators had been making an attempt, the museum defined in a sequence of tweets, to rethink the exhibition in ways in which higher captured in the present day’s sensibilities. However after analysis and reflection, they’d concluded that it “nonetheless perpetuates a model of medical historical past that’s based mostly on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”. There appeared no different—the gallery’s doorways needed to shut completely.
Full disclosure: I co-curated the Drugs Man gallery, and so have a eager curiosity within the determination. However the next reflections are usually not a lot in regards to the closure of a distinctly previous show, which undoubtedly was due for radical recuration, if not alternative. They stem as an alternative from the existential debate in regards to the raison d’être of museums that has mushroomed from Wellcome’s announcement.
I used to be struck by one specific tweet Wellcome put out: “What’s the purpose of museums? Honestly, we’re asking ourselves the identical query.” I scrolled by way of greater than a thousand responses to see how folks have been grappling with this elementary quandary. All too predictably, a pair of polarised responses screamed out: this was a “courageous” act, rising from soul-searched consciences, mixed with a much-needed willingness to make up for previous wrongs; or, this was an act of “cultural vandalism” delivered by pseudo-professionals who ought to instantly discover totally different jobs that they’d the competence truly to carry out. What I missed was something approaching curiosity; no “hmm, hadn’t considered that…” or “shoot me down if you need, however I used to be questioning…”.
One thing I’ve been questioning about is what might be gained from regarding ourselves a bit extra with what museums are good at, and worrying rather less about what they is likely to be good for? The unedifying hour I spent ploughing by way of this on-line culture-skirmish dropped at thoughts, by dint of its absence in these posts, one distinctive side of museums. Specifically, their provision of open, unpredictable fora the place guests can transfer past the simplicities of both being for or in opposition to one thing.
Past proper and mistaken
In gallery areas, two-sided points steadily get subtle—pulled right here and there alongside much less formulaic strains, when a highlight, say, illuminates a baffling objet or sophisticated life. The fervent quest to differentiate proper from mistaken that fits some media is right here swapped for one thing altogether messier, humbler and extra intriguing. For absolutely one of many nice social advantages we derive from these culturally charged areas is the inspiring realisation that as we stand subsequent to a different customer transfixed by the identical portray, the possibilities are that their expertise might be totally different to mine. At its greatest, the Wellcome Assortment has repeatedly proven simply how a lot may be achieved when adventurous curators have the arrogance to work with that potential.
Together with areas for contemplation and exploration, the opposite tools museums deploy is, after all, the objects they show. A core a part of the curator’s craft lies to find and sharing displays that resist any inflexible insistence that they need to stand in for one thought, one perspective. After selecting an exhibit, curators with aptitude will subsequent choose completely which different exhibit ought to sit subsequent to it: utilizing juxtaposition to create a resonance, mutual illumination, or, alternatively, a jarring contradiction. The masters of this artwork can magically excavate intriguing insights or questions that lurk beneath an exhibit’s floor. And continuously, they may achieve this by elevating a smile or a frown.
We will shun error, or we will consider in reality: two materially alternative ways by which to guide one’s life. The thinker William James put this dilemma to a college viewers in late Nineteenth-century America. “Our errors… are absolutely not such awfully solemn issues. In a world the place we’re so sure to incur them regardless of all our warning, a sure lightness of coronary heart appears more healthy than this extreme nervousness on their behalf.” For many of us although, it’s in all probability extra a matter of steadiness than binary selection. However as of late we appear more and more paralysed by an eagerness to shun error, and reasonably reluctant to experiment within the title of looking for reality.
Calling out and redressing big wrongs and offences constructed on previous assumptions ought to be a part of the museum combine. We now have all discovered a lot from being confronted with ugly truths which have for much too lengthy been masked or glossed over. And for some, eradicating these items from public view is a crucial step. Nonetheless, I’m additionally drawn to a reasonably totally different method, which includes one other sort of braveness. Right here the emphasis is on doing cultural initiatives in public, curating alternatives to suppose aloud with issues. A few of these experiments will little doubt turn into errors. But when we repeatedly try to take advantage of what museums are able to—enjoying with enduring attributes of an establishment now effectively into its third millennium—and remind ourselves of their distinct limitations while doing so, we would discover demonstrations of what museums are for, with no need first to put up it in lower than 280 characters.
• Ken Arnold is the director of Medical Museion, Copenhagen and a professor at Copenhagen College
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