Skip to content

By Science Museum Group on

Researching culturally sensitive items in the Science Museum’s medical collections

As part of our Open for All blog series, Science Museum Research Fellow Shelley Saggar discusses how the Science Museum Group is researching culturally sensitive items in the collection to help better understand their significance and ensure all objects are cared for respectfully.

In November 2019, the Science Museum opened Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries. Intended to showcase the breadth and depth of the Science Museum Group Collection alongside items from Sir Henry Wellcome’s historical medical collection, the galleries feature hospital technology, contemporary art and ethnographic and religious items.

This broad approach to curating the history of medicine recalls the expansive attitude of Henry Wellcome – a collector who sought to bring together the art, science and spirituality of humankind’s approach to medicine and healing in his personal collection.

Exploring Medicine gallery at the Science Museum showcasing items from Henry Wellcome’s collection

Despite his wide-reaching vision, Wellcome was also a fairly typical collector of what he considered to be “curios”. Although he included non-Western healing practices as part of his attempt to tell the story of medicine through material objects, he took the view that societies were organised from primitive to progressive, and used the non-Western items in his collection to tell this particular story.

Amassing items from all four corners of the globe, most of the non-Western items were relegated to the ‘Primitive Medicine’ gallery, reflecting a hierarchical view of civilisation common in the 19th century.

View of the gallery of primitive medicine at the Wellcome museum in 1946
Wellcome museum, gallery of ‘Primitive Medicine’. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

After his death in 1936, much of Wellcome’s sizable collection was dispersed to other museums in the UK and around the world, and in 1976, the remainder of the collection was transferred to the Science Museum, where it continues to be cared for today. This shared responsibility has seen the two museums work closely together on a range of projects.

The opening of the Medicine Galleries in 2019 provided an opportunity for new and innovative research into under-explored aspects of the Wellcome inheritance, including a project to develop a more nuanced understanding of sacred, secret and potentially sensitive objects that remain relatively unknown in the collection.

These terms refer to items that hold religious or spiritual significance, have particular restrictions on who is permitted to view and handle them, or are otherwise significant to source communities despite not having such specific protocols associated with them.

Conservator Adriana preparing a Sioux Baby Carrier from the Wellcome Collection to go on display in the Medicine Galleries

Led by conversations with a selection of international museums and source communities, the research project approached a somewhat contentious history as a positive opportunity to form relationships and improve the Science Museum’s understanding of items that are rarely seen as part of the core mission of the museum.

Drawing on best practice from the United States, Canada, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia and focusing on a small sample of objects originating from these lands, collections information was developed which contributed to the Science Museum and Wellcome Collection’s object catalogue references and public displays.

One of the most interesting aspects of the research has been finding creative ways of working with objects when cultural protocols restrict handling and viewing to select knowledge-keepers. Working with these “invisible objects” presents something of a challenge to museum staff who are accustomed to getting to know the material they work with through careful handling and visual observation.

Visitor in the Faith, Hope and Fear gallery at the Science Museum

However, these restrictions actually helped to challenge preconceptions about museum research. This pushed staff working on the project to find more creative ways of approaching their research into these items in order to be able to identify which source communities we needed to contact to determine the most appropriate course of action. Turning to archival records allowed us to supplement our knowledge about the items in question and has allowed researchers to find respectful ways of researching restricted items.

Over the course of the project, international museums and community representatives have been advised of potentially sacred and/or restricted or “secret” items in our custody and initial consultation steps have been taken to determine collaborative paths forward in order to ensure that the protocols and requests of source communities are respected.

Although still in its early stages, the Science Museum Group and Wellcome Collection recognise the long-term nature of this work and are committed to working with communities to determine the most appropriate contexts for these items.

Now extended until 2023, the research into culturally sensitive items will focus on taking forward the initial phase of the project and implementing recommendations concerning how these items are stored, as well as establishing how longer-term partnerships can be scoped and secured with heritage organisations and source communities.