How “other” cultures and values are represented in exhibitions.
The Wellcome Collection is a private collection and exhibition space aimed at the general public. As explained in their website, it explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future. Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936) was a pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector. Set up only in 2007 the collection consists of a wide range of objects in several privately-owned spaces. The photograph above depicts in an amusing way Sir Henry’s interest in indigenous cultures and thus I will try to explain my experience at the Wellcome Collection while reflecting on a current curatorial topics of the representation of ‘the Other’ and Sensory Museology.
In an Introduction to sensory Museology by David Howes, Howes explains how the first museums of the seventeenth century and eighteenth centuries were hands-on site in which visitors expected and were permitted to handle artifacts (p.260). Ironically today, as Helen Rees Leahy explains in Museum Bodies: “Learning how to stand at the ‘correct’ distance from an art work, walking at a pace that is neither too fast nor too slow, and knowing what to ‘feel’ (without touching, of course) are corporeal techniques that must be mastered as a museum visitor to display a requisite degree of cultural competence (Howes, 260).
And yet as a frequent museum visitor I still find it very hard to keep my hands in my pockets as I take wonder in the texture of what’s being displayed. It is because of this I find very interesting any attempt at making a sensory gymnasium of a gallery or museum (Howes, 265).
At the Wellcome Collection I couldn’t help it but excitingly open the drawers which display some of the artefacts at the Medicine Man exhibition. Sandra Dudley says in her article Surprise and Proprioceptivity that storage drawers transform sight from a distance sense into a proximity sense (Howes, 261). I agree with the fact that it makes for a more dynamic engagement even if the object remains untouched; a more interactive form of display which I hope, will only increment with the help of technology to a more multisensory experience at museums and galleries.
I agree with Dudley that a more sensory experience at museums and galleries is also happening thanks to the technologization of aesthetics. During my visit to the Wellcome, there was also an exhibition called States of Mind on the second floor. This exhibition was a follow up on a previous installation they had that consisted of a space filled with colored midst (Ann Veronica Janssens: yellowbluepink). States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness explored different perspectives of artists, psychologists, philosophers etc. on the understanding of consciousness. In this exhibit the thing that struck me the most was Vladimir Nobakov’s Alphabet in Colour interpreted by an American illustrator Jean Holabird in 2005. The label explained hoe research shows that similar letter-colour synesthesia can be learned through training, demonstrating the flexibility of the brain. Next to the display of the illustrations there was a screen in which the visitor could simulate synesthesia by playing a letter-colour memory game. It was a tactile as well as visual experience enhanced and possible by technology.
In Collecting ourselves by J.Clifford, Clifford expands on how exotic objects have been contextualised and given value in the west addressing notions about ‘us’ and ‘the other’.
Clifford explains that the grouping and collecting of exotic artefacts are impacted by the context of the collector and is tied up with “nationalist politics, restrictive law, the past and the future”. He clearly acknowledges that collecting is a way of making the worlds one’s own (Clifford,259). In reflecting about the exhibit ‘Medicine Man’ it is important to understand Clifford’s view that a fixation on a single object of a collection is negatively marked as a fetishism of the collector (p.260) and he later encourages the reader to look at objects of non-western origin as such in order to avoid discrimination in presenting them as object to inform or enlighten but rather as a personal way to gather the world around us.
Clifford mentions that it is the inventors of anthropology and modern art that have appropriated exotic thing facts and meanings and this is what causes discriminations made when displaying artefacts. Clifford alludes Susan Stewart when explaining that some exhibitions are to: “create the illusion of adequate representation of a world by first cutting objects out of a specific context (whether cultural, historical or intersubjective) and making them ‘stand for’ abstract wholes (Clifford,260). By this Stewart means that a single object is displayed as representative of an entire culture.
Clifford refers to the modern art-culture system of classification to objects from non-western sources collected in two mayor categories: as (scientific) cultural artefacts or as (aesthetic) works of art. Modern ethnographic museums, art museums or private art collections (like the welcome gallery) use a different way of classification which tends to display objects by similar function or from similar cultural groups. An object can be displayed with dissimilar objects and explained as part of a ritual or institutional complex. In ‘Medicine Man’ some objects are gathered by type and others by broad cross-cultural themes.
It was only at the end of the 20th century that objects in an ethnographic museum shifted from being a curiosity to being a source of information and telling the story of human development (Clifford, p264). An example of this is the operating tools displayed at the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit where you could observe the development of the tools throughout time and cultures. Although there are some painting in the room I don’t believe that the objects on display at the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit are meant to be interpreted as fine art but more as historical evidence or even some as sacred objects related to medicinal rituals. Perhaps at one point (when collected by Sir Henry they were a representation of race and ethnicity too) but because the Wellcome Collection is a modern display space I don’t believe that was the intention. ‘Medicine Now’ in contrast is more about fine art inspired by science and therefore the objects on display lend themselves to more of a subjective fine art interpretation by the visitor.
Overall, after our group discussion at the reading room it became obvious to me that because of the Wellcome Collection being privately owned exhibition space there was a larger budget for things like design and public areas. I believe that although at one point in time the artefacts in display might have been a representation of the power struggle between minorities and majorities and the idea of ‘otherness’, it is currently being displayed in such a modern way that to me it is a historical recollection of medicines development through time with the inclusion of artefacts from different cultures.
Here you can see some drawing in an exploration of the space during the visit: