On British museums effacing the past

January 30, 2023 • 11:15 am

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.

The impetus:

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.

Un-Wellcome reminders

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.


h/t: Wayne

12 thoughts on “On British museums effacing the past

  1. The author could have added that arraigning the past often ignores the persistence of the condemned practices or beliefs in the modern world, typically in the Third World.

  2. The logic baffles me: Representations of past practices/beliefs which have been discarded perpetuate the present instantiation of the practices/beliefs.

    The only way this works is if one has a very low opinion of humanity, excepting of course one’s own tribe.

  3. The museum officials who conduct these Cadaver Synods on the past are without doubt an outcome of the current fashion in education. They learned how to find evidence of racism in a chair, signs of sexism in a still-life of food, and evidently learned little else. If education of this kind takes over in engineering, medicine, and dentistry (as its acolytes aim to do), then life in the Anglosphere will become very strange indeed.

  4. Indeed. Making history go away by hiding its artifacts doesn’t actually make history go away. It just makes it more difficult to learn about it. But isn’t the teaching of history one of the jobs of a museum?

  5. An excellent article. Incidentally, the Science Museum in London recently removed an exhibit recently, too:

    The Science Museum has dismantled a trans-inclusive display following complaints it was pushing “propaganda” and not biology.

    A cabinet titled Boy Or Girl? displayed quotes describing the transition from the “wrong body” as a “hero’s journey”, and labels characterising gender as something “difficult to define” which “may not match your biological sex”.

    The display which featured a fake penis and chest-binding equipment has been taken down by the museum following complaints the information provided was “not science, but propaganda”.


    Museums seem increasingly trying to tell us what to think, either by removing the “harmful” or trying to sneak in the “progressive” .

  6. ‘“The curvaceous chair literally supports him and exemplifies his view on beauty,” she writes.’

    Don’t stop there. How about the curvature of his palette and cap, and his calves for that matter?

  7. I am slightly confused…(again)…
    If you display the object, it is perpetuating Colonial white hetero-normative privelege and dominance.
    If you remove the display, does this not hide the colonial misdeeds? Thus, in itself, the removal of a display is perpetuating the colonial hegomony? We silence the perpetrator by silencing the victim??

    I guess you would need to remove the display, and have a museum filled with information plates that read “Here used to be the little mans toothbrush” etc.

    Perhaps it is time to be proactive: We must actively erase Hogarth’s chair! Keep the painting and paint over the past (I mean chair) and relace it with…I dunno…a metaphor…

    (Like everything, there truly is a discussion to be had about museum displays…but also like everything ‘nowadays’…we skipped the discussion and went straight to an exteme conservative view that is self-satirical. And yes, the extreme woke/left/social justice view is a fundamentally conservative view. We just need to re-look at what conservatism actually is).

    1. “If you remove the display, does this not hide the colonial misdeeds?”

      In Cincinnati, Ohio, where I was raised, there is a museum, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, that educates the public on this important part of US history. The first time I visited it as a young adult, I was overcome with emotion when viewing a very realistic exhibit of armed white men keeping guard over chained slaves. There were many other exhibits and artifacts that unabashedly showed the evils of slavery. I haven’t had that kind of reaction to a museum exhibit before or since.

      I think your point is very important…how much worse it is to bury these misdeeds than to show them! I hope that the Woke are not coming for these “museums of conscience”, which would also include places like the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

  8. “Napoleon’s transgressive toothbrush vanished; racists and ableists everywhere were doubtless chastened.”

    Nobody does sarcasm like the British. It’s not even close.

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