Social Justice and Art – Private collecting abroad and its complexities
When living in Singapore, I had the opportunity to visit a most extraordinary collection of Southeast Asian artifacts in a private home. Janet Stride and her husband, current residents of the Lion City and long-term ex-pats, had traveled extensively and come away with some amazing treasures. It was like visiting a museum where nothing was under glass.
Inscribed silver betel leaf containers and tea sets were laid out on the tables, next to headdresses, necklaces, and bracelets. Entire sets of traditional clothing adorned dress dummies and handwoven carpets overlapped underfoot. A special cabinet held multitudes of ceremonial swords called kris, all gorgeous and unique: some with curved blades, some with straight blades and engraved ivory handles. Every surface in this home was covered with curios from their travels.
Our hostess talked many times about how the locals who sold these items either needed money or weren’t interested in them anymore – either because of their conversion to Christianity or because they were seen to be “old fashioned” – both reasons broke my heart.
Most memorably, she had a pair of life-sized effigies of humans that represented deceased individuals from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. These are called Tau-Tau. Our hostess recounted that the first set of Tau-Tau she brought into her home caused so much unrest that her domestic help had threatened to quit after their arrival. They sent them back to the dealer, and eventually, she acquired a new set, which, to me, seemed equally unsettling as they sat in the living room staring at us with unblinking eyes.
Hearing stories of her acquisitions and travels, looking at the splendor of a diversity of Southeast Asian cultures spread before me, I couldn’t help but feel as if I had gone back in time to an era of colonialism where one was free to collect anything and everything from the “natives” as one traveled across exotic lands.
Imagining the world as “exotic”
I imagine that this may have been what it was like for individuals such as Henry Wellcome, as he began to build what is now London’s Wellcome Collection. Collecting art and artifacts abroad was most certainly in style back in the 19th century. I’m sure such individuals saw themselves not as looters and treasure-seekers but as collectors of mementos of their travels as well as preserving important aspects of communities and cultures that they visited, rather than unjust appropriation.
However, in such situations, it is important to remember the opportunistic nature of humanity. While Wellcome’s intentions may not have been nefarious, it’s hard to know with whom he made his sales. Items may have been stolen and then sold to him without his knowledge. This is one of the reasons (other than avoiding forgeries) that provenance plays such an important role for important works of art.
The illegal antiquities trade is a huge problem around the world – both on the buying and selling side. It would seem as though the narrative of “we don’t want these things anymore – please rescue them” isn’t as cut-and-dry as one would like to think. Just as foreign adoption may be part of a human trafficking scheme, the purchase of antiques and “curiosities” isn’t always so simple either.
Going back to our more modern example, while Tau-Tau are significant items for animists, they do not play the same spiritual role of representing a deceased relative for Christians. As a result, there have been many thefts of tau-tau in the past to supply a demand from collectors abroad.
I do not wish to insinuate that one should not collect souvenirs while traveling. But it is important, even in this day and age, to be conscious of how one does it. We don’t always know the circumstances under which the items offered for sale are collected and the cultural meanings behind them. For hundreds of years, expatriates and colonizers have collected items and eventually returned with these “exotic” items to the “West.” The question is, do these items really belong in the collections where they find themselves?
Visiting the Wellcome Collection
These questions came back to mind years later, just a few weeks ago, as I walked around the British Museum with my 7-year-old son Benjamin, who asked, “Do you think these mummies are happy to be in a museum?” And, similarly, at the Wellcome Collection, I found myself wondering: “Are these artifacts happy to be part of the Wellcome Collection?”
The British Museum and many other towering institutions of culture face these questions for some of their most beloved objects. For instance, the British Museum is the possessor of the Elgin Marbles and “Hoa Hakananai’a” (from the Easter Islands), amongst other items of disputed ownership. Recently the Quai Branly in Paris decided to return 26 looted objects to Benin, which some museums see as a dangerous precedent, and others see as encouraging.
As we explore the items in the Wellcome Collection, one may ask, is it alright to own and display these items, as long as they were supposedly purchased rather than looted? I’m not convinced. The spiritual nature of certain pieces leads me to feel that they belong in a more fitting home, closer to their roots. And yet, one may wonder: what would be appropriate to display in such a collection?
Let’s learn more in order to make an informed judgement…
In the early twentieth century, Henry Wellcome amassed one of the world’s largest museum collections. Spanning continents, cultures and centuries, the objects reflect universal human interest in health and the body.
This exhibition displays a cross-section of objects from Henry Wellcome’s collection, rangning from diagnostic dolls to sex aids, and from Napoleon’s toothbrush to George III’s hair. It provides a range of cultural and historical perspectives on our enduring obsessions with medicine and health.The Wellcome Collection
Clearly, Henry Wellcome had vast and wide-ranging interests as well as the means to acquire objects. In fact, he was an exceptional collector:
In some years his spending on acquisitions was greater than that of the British Museum, and the total size of his possessions was many times greater than the Louvre…
Soon after his death, a rough catalogue of the collection was made for the first time. One part of it listed “1100 cases of ethnological objects, 100 Graeco-Roman and other classical objects…80 cases of miscellaneous small arms, 150 cases of prehistoric objects, 300 framed pictures…85 cases of surgical instruments…60 cases of pestles and mortars, 170 cases of Peruvian objects…74 cases of weights and measures.’
It took forty years to throw away or sell off many of his possessions, distribute others to places like the Science Museum, and retain only the most valuable and important in the Wellcome Collection in London, where they now remain.John Launer
We will examine some objects from this whittled-down collection that may not be the best fit anymore with the modern sensibilities of the Wellcome Collection. In addition, a glimpse into the collection of European objects shall illustrate that a smaller, more focused exhibition, would still offer an enriching experience to the viewer without raising concerns about the symbolism or provenance of certain items.
The variety of Wellcome’s interests and the ambition of his collecting became immediately clear when the first three items encountered in this exhibition were three different chairs (a birthing chair – of unknown provenance, a dentist’s chair – British, and the Dragon Chair pictured below – Chinese).
Regarding the Dragon Chair:
The razor-sharp steel blades on this chair led to the assumption for many years that it could only be an implement of torture. But look closer; the chair is ornately decorated with foliage, scrolls and the heads of mythological sea monsters called Macara, details not often found in such cruel devices. In fact, this chair is a rare example of a Dragon chair used historically by Chinese mediums (Tangki). The act of sitting on the blades demonstrated the superhuman power of God over human flesh, which apparently remained unharmed. So while this chair might look terrifying, its purpose was very different.The Wellcome Collection
Clearly, the Dragon Chair is a fascinating piece of furniture. Yet, if Wellcome collected this chair under the impression it was an implement of torture, and it is now known not to be, I would argue that it has no place in this collection. Most likely it was acquired it having misunderstood its use, as this item is still mislabeled online in other collections. It has a religious purpose, rather than a medical or physical one. As such, I would encourage that this item be returned to its original location of acquisition, or to Singapore where these religious practices are still alive.
Similar to the dragon chair above, many of the other items displayed from outside of Europe have a ritual aspect that is absent in the European objects.
This Nkisi (pictured below) is originally from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It would have represented an individual and the nails as well as its mirrored torso each would have been related to a certain purpose. To imagine that one could “purchase” an effigy of a specific human being, that representation having been used for spiritual purposes, seems unbelievable.
As described on the Wikipedia page about Nkisi (plural minkisi),
In fact, minkisi have even been described as portable graves, and many include earth or relics from the grave of a powerful individual as a prime ingredient. The powers of the dead thus infuse the object and allow the nganga to control it. The metal objects commonly pounded into the surface of the power figures represent the minkisis’ active roles during ritual or ceremony. Each nail or metal piece represents a vow, a signed treaty, and efforts to abolish evil. Ultimately, these figures most commonly represent reflections upon socially unacceptable behaviors and efforts to correct them.Wikipedia, Nkisi
The concept that this is a reliquary, or even a home for a spirit makes it even less an object that should be confined to this museum, rather than a mausoleum. Yet, these, like the figures below were indeed collected as “objets d’art.”
Does the attractiveness and the skill with which spiritual items such as the nkisi above and the ibeji figures below made justify their presence in a museum? I would argue it depends on the item.
Objects relating to spirituality can certainly be shown in museums without objection, for instances, there are many chalices and crucifixes displayed in museums. But not all items related to the spiritual side of humanity belongs in a museum. Some of these items are so personal and contain either the remains of the body (or believed to contain the spirit or soul) that it’s hard to imagine a display case is the right location for them to repose.
For example, the twin statues below:
Reading the informational card, one learns that these two ibeji figures were proxies for the souls of deceased twins, which would have been treated like the real babies in order to care for their souls.
Under what circumstances would the purchase of the proxy of a soul be made? How would a Yoruba person, visiting most likely from Nigeria, Benin or Togo feel about seeing such figures in an exhibition? Can we afford to ignore the importance that these figures once played in a family’s life, or the spirituality imbued into these objects? Additionally, it is not just representations or relics of the soul on display in the Wellcome Collection.
The Wellcome Collection possesses the physical remains of multiple human beings. The are: an inhabitant from what is currently called Gabon, and a mummified individual from the Chimu tribe from what is now Peru, as well as shrunken heads.
The mummy on display and the one wrapped in the reliquary are humans that deserve to be returned to their home countries. Any one of us, imagining that our bodies or the bodies of our loved ones were to be crated off and treated as trophies might find ourselves feeling discomfort.
“Well, at least they still exist!” Yes – they do. Perhaps they wouldn’t if Wellcome hadn’t “rescued” them from the hands of the cultures (and the sands of time?) to whom them belonged. However, I would argue that that would be just fine as the bodies would have disintegrated as was the custom of their culture, and that this collection would hardly be weaker for their loss.
I argue that the collection would hardly be weaker as we are not gaining any new “medical” knowledge from these additions. The guardian figure gives an anthropological insight into late 19th century beliefs about “power” against danger in certain the Ogowe River Basin area of Gabon. But, this is not medicine in a traditional sense. These two displays rather veer into the realm of “curiosities”.
The “shrunken head” pictured below also fill the same “curiosity” niche. While we cannot always control the past and what was collected, curators can either condone or condemn when selecting items to show.
Again, shrunken heads lead to more questions about the Wellcome Collection and the intentions of its collection.
Finally, this female sculpture, another objet d’art is a further example of when the ritual significance of an object comes secondary to the aesthetic. This label states that the significance was not recorded at the time of purchase for the collection, proving that the acquisition was not made for the medical or spiritual importance, but only for the “interest.” (Perhaps it was the human skin stretched across the the wood? It’s hard to know.) What is known is that this item could no longer play its role in Igbo society once it was in Wellcome’s hands.
I would argue that the items shown above are all more spiritual than medical. Comparing them to the items Wellcome collects in Europe, some of which are shown below, there is a huge difference. Yes, there are also “curiosities” and pieces of artwork, but all seem to focus much more closely on the human body and its scientific mechanics. The Wellcome collection lacks focus and gains more of a “sideshow” atmosphere due to the strange nature of some of the objects in its collection. Were it to focus purely on medical items from around the world, I believe the exhibition would be much stronger.
While the number of forceps and gynecological implements collected by Wellcome is unsettling, it’s hard to see this as an assault on one’s sensibilities. These are not ritual items to be returned somewhere. These are tools for the birthing of babies. The compulsion to create such a collection of such size did concern me, but clearly that was Wellcome’s nature.
The anti-masturbation devices for men (below) (and the chastity belt for the same purpose for women, behind it) fit a similar profile. I find these items uncomfortable to view and fascinating, yet are clearly medical. They are of European origin.
The term “masturbatory insanity”, coined by English Psychiatrist Henry Maudsley in 1868, referred to the damage it was assumed one caused to the brain through the licentious act of masturbation. In the late 19th century masturbation was considered a perversion, leading to insatiability, nervous disorders and madness. These devices were designed to ‘help’ the wearer avoid such a fate and were often used in mental institutions and sometimes even in the home. Other interventions existed for women for whom masturbation would almost surely lead to instability and hysteria.The Wellcome Collection
The “obstetrical teaching model” is also of European origin, specifically Italy, and may have been used to teach midwives the basics of childbirth.
For me personally, “the creepier the better” in this collection. I loved being weirded out by this stuff. This model baby and female torso definitely fit the bill for me.
This wood-and-leather model of a female torso is almost life-size. It came from the Hospital del Ceppo in Pistoia, Italy and was used to teach the rudiments of childbirth, possibly to midwives. The cloth ‘baby’ can be manipulated to show how birth takes place and how abnormal positions of the child affect the process. In the eighteenth century, instrumental intervention to deliver a live child was rare, with caesarean section rarely attempted.The Wellcome Collection
The anatomically-related is the 18th century sculpture below also fascinated me.
This niche artifact is of European origin and has found a rightful home in the Wellcome collection as a commemoration of the dissection of a body.
Perhaps it is based on the Rembrandt painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp” which memorializes the yearly dissection of a corpse, when surgeons, doctors, trainees, and the public would crowd around to learn more about human anatomy. Is the sculpture based upon the same annual event? It’s possible!
The old-fashioned dentures as well as Napoleon’s toothbrush (both pictured below) are also compelling oddities one can view.
These are all examples of “curiosities” and sculptures that I believe do have a place in the Wellcome Collection. Note that none are imbued with spiritual importance. Many are instructional, practical, or intended to serve a purpose. These are the items that are logical to display.
The artwork in this collection also – not surprisingly – all center around the scientific or medical theme. The momento mori stood out as particularly macabre:
The paintings in the collection were equally bizarre and/or grotesque.
In the image above, not only is the main image a flayed and dissected female (who nonetheless looks happy about it?) there is also a disemboweled/dissected infant as well as a female pelvis/uterus at the bottom, seemingly discarded on the ground. This piece cannot belong anywhere except in a museum devoted to medicine (or – even better – in storage?) as it depicts the use of the female human body too cruelly to be viewed in any other context.
This meditation on collecting items abroad, via items found in the Welcome Collection, is really just a small slice of everything that was on display at this overwhelmingly fascinating exhibition. While there were a multitude of items to discover, the question of “why is this here?” did plague me at multiple times during my visit. This is a small museum rather than a large, encyclopedic museum that many large cities house, leaving one with the thought of how many such items might be hiding in storage in larger institutions.