The Economist has a very well written and well argued piece on how museums should handle aspects of the past that we today find uncomfortable or even offensive. The article, which is signed with the pseudonym “Bagehot”, was inspired by the dismantling of part of the Wellcome Collection. It then recounts other instances of museums getting rid of stuff, some of those removals proper (I agree that the Benin bronzes should have been handed back to Nigeria and strongly believe that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece), but as for simply removing stuff from public inspection because it doesn’t comport with modern views, read below for a sensible take (there’s also an audio version):
Indented words are from the article; words flush left are mine.
Forget Cézanne at Tate Modern. Forget Lucian Freud at the National Gallery. If you want to see something on a gallery wall that is really, as arty sorts say, challenging, head to the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road in London. On the white wall of this minimalist space you will find a similarly minimalist exhibit of six small holes; three above and three below. There’s no label, though, and it’s not quite clear at first what they are.
It is clear what they are not. They are emphatically not part of the Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man exhibition. Until late last year, this comprised an eccentric display of medical oddments—a glass eye; false legs; Tunisian amulets; Napoleon’s toothbrush—acquired by the Collection’s equally eccentric philanthropic founder, Henry Wellcome. At the end of 2022 the Collection announced that the exhibition “perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories” and shut it two days later. Napoleon’s transgressive toothbrush vanished; racists and ableists everywhere were doubtless chastened.
Poor old Wellcome. The past is another country and they did things differently there, much to the embarrassment of the present, which really would rather that they hadn’t. All British museums and galleries are squirming.
Damn! I would have wanted to see Napoleon’s toothbrush.
Some bizarre “erasures”:
Most have started to accompany their displays with labels rich in sorrowful subjunctives. In a recent William Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain, a much-mocked label next to a painting of Hogarth sitting on a chair noted that the chair was made from colonial timbers. Might the chair’s limbs “stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity”? In the Burrell Collection, in Glasgow, a label observes that contemporary critics of the artist Édouard Manet often compared his paintings of women to pieces of meat. Might we be “seeing more [in this picture] than just a painting of a ham?” asks the label next to a Manet painting of a ham.
Oy! Yes, some Jews would find offense in that ham. Here it is, and below is the controversial painting showing Hogarth in his chair:
Self-portrait of Hogarth sitting in a chair and painting. The Tate’s label, written by Sonia E. Barrett, reads:
“The curvaceous chair literally supports him and exemplifies his view on beauty,” she writes. “The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”.
This shows that there is nothing—literally nothing—that can’t be construed as racist.
Seriously, though, the writer has a good philosophical take on museum erasures:
Some of this is sensible. People in the past did awful things; it is right to think about those things, carefully. If objects have clearly been nicked, it is absolutely right that they should go back. But it is absolutely wrong to do what the Wellcome Collection has, and forget the most obvious thing about the past—namely, that it isn’t another place at all. The past is merely the present, yesterday. We, today, will be in it tomorrow. The clumsy closing of the Medicine Man exhibit is in the past already. And it already looks bad.
History rarely looks kindly on those who put the past on trial from the vantage point of the present. Consider Pope Formosus, a ninth-century pope who annoyed a successor, Pope Stephen VI. Stephen’s chief problem with Formosus wasn’t merely that he was irritating; it was that, since the papacy is held for life, he was dead. Undeterred, Stephen had Formosus’s rotting corpse exhumed, dressed in full papal regalia, put on trial, found guilty, mutilated and then tossed into the Tiber. Today the Cadaver Synod is, in a highly competitive field, considered one of the finest examples of Vatican idiocy in history. Museums and galleries that mutilate their collections to conform to present fashions tend to look similarly absurd. People still smirk at the Gabinetto Segreto in Naples, in which the ruder relics of Pompeii were locked away.
And the ending, which I love because it’s not only true, but very well written.
The job of history is not, as Hilary Mantel once said, to issue “report cards” to the past. The sanctimonious word soup being spread over museum and gallery walls is not necessarily wrong in its conclusions—which are often spot-on. But it is wrong in its aim, which is to tell people what to think. And that is exactly what history should not do. One of the most mocked history books of the 20th century was “Our Island Story”, which was parodied in “1066 and All That” for its habit of briskly dismissing moments in history as “A Good Thing” or a “A Bad Thing”. In contrast, Mantel’s own “Wolf Hall” took Thomas Cromwell, one of history’s most infamous villains, and made him, if not a hero, then at least someone you rooted for. You thought again. You thought at all.
It is the job of history—and therefore of galleries and museums—to make you think. To make you wonder, of any moment in the past: what was the right thing to do? What was the wrong one? Happily, the Wellcome Collection has a temporary exhibit of its own that does just that. Just head over to where Medicine Man used to be. You might have trouble finding it: labels have been stuck over the name in the lifts; in the newly reprinted maps it has already, Soviet-like, vanished. But look carefully and you can still find those six holes on the wall. As you look, it slowly becomes clear what they are: they mark where the sign for the Medicine Man exhibition used to hang. And that does make you think.