Welcome shift

Melanie Keen, the director of the Wellcome Collection in London, on responding to Covid, Black Lives Matter and ushering in much-needed cultural change
Maggie Gray
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Melanie Keen has been director of the Wellcome Collection since 2019
Melanie Keen has been director of the Wellcome Collection since 2019 Photography by Phil Sayer

“You could talk to any museum director about the pandemic and they’d well up,” says Melanie Keen, the director of the Wellcome Collection in London. “Those first two weeks were bewildering; what does it mean to be running a museum during lockdown?”

When the venue closed on 16 March, Keen had been director for just five months. Suddenly, she faced the three-way challenge of pivoting to remote working while supporting staff and keeping the organisation ticking over. And for the art curator and former director of the visual arts organisation Iniva, there was another dimension to the crisis.

The Wellcome Collection is part of the medical research foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and is dedicated to exploring health and human experience. It has had a visible role in the UK’s cultural response to the virus, and the need to rethink the collection in light of the global upheaval was apparent. So an obvious priority was to preserve something of the times.

Mary Beth Heffernan, PPE Project 2015, installation view from ‘Being Human’ Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

“We are forevermore in a Covid moment,” she says, when we spoke on Zoom in mid-September. “We’ll always look back and think, ‘Our lives changed’. For us, this shapes how we think about collecting.”

The Wellcome team began a rapid-response initiative to gather cultural items relating to the pandemic, in conversation with colleagues across the sector.

“We set up a Slack chat to bring lots of organisations together and ensure each collection played to its strengths,” Keen says. “There was talk within Wellcome of collecting memes, for example, but other organisations are better set up for that.”

Zines and ephemera, however, are a good fit for the Wellcome Library and are among the items being sought. “Rapid response” might be a misnomer; for Keen, it is more important to collect ethically than quickly. “Lives are being lost, trauma is being felt, grieving is happening,” she says. “We can’t ask people to separate themselves from objects that are meaningful to them.”

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The emphasis has been on starting a conversation with individuals who may want to share material later. The museum is also commissioning to collect. Three new artworks looking at the UK government’s public messaging during the pandemic are now on show since the museum reopened in October. The works have been made to “explore the intertwined connections between the individual, society and planetary health, and how the fault lines around these have been affected by Covid”.

Diversity matters

The pandemic was not the only global event to reveal fault lines in society this summer. The Black Lives Matter protests around the world had a seismic impact on the museum sector and crystallised problems in the Wellcome Collection.

On 30 June, it released a statement on anti-blackness and racism that went further than most, explicitly acknowledging that “museums are built on a foundation of white supremacy”. The text drew attention to existing initiatives, including the museum’s 2018 access, diversity and inclusion strategy, and the £1m commitment to internal reform that accompanied it.

The Wellcome Library Photography by Phil Sayer

But Keen saw a chance to refocus efforts. “Around the time of the protests there was a sense of turbulence at the Wellcome,” she says. “Until that point there was a bit of walking gingerly around the edges, talking about barriers to inclusion and engagement. At that moment I could name the problem: institutional racism, and Wellcome took the bit between its teeth.”

The Wellcome Trust and Collection are the legacy of the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), who bequeathed a fortune to health research and amassed a formidable collection of medical and ethnographic artefacts, books and visual material, many of which are held in the Wellcome Collection, with a selection on permanent display in the Medicine Man gallery.

This, Keen says, is a “very difficult space”. Among the objects are human remains and prosthetics, and the collection is full of distressing imperial histories. Plans to rethink Medicine Man were under way when Keen joined in October 2019, and the project is a priority.

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“The first step is to ask artists and curators to extract those difficult histories,” she says. “We’re going to change some of the objects as well.” She is careful, however, “not to preclude what a new collections gallery might look like. I would describe it as an iterative and discursive process.”

She hopes to learn from Being Human, another permanent display, which opened in September 2019 and explores trust, identity and health in a changing world. It strives to be physically accessible and culturally inclusive, and was devised with activists, academics and educators, who told the museum some uncomfortable truths about the 12-year-old Medicine Now gallery it replaced.

The collection’s problematic legacy extends into the digital space. Some 280,000 items (and 41 million images) are available online, and staff are working to locate and contextualise offensive material embedded in the historical metadata.

Keen hopes the changes to the database and displays will attract new audiences and give existing ones pause for thought. “There are people who come to the Wellcome to get validation for their thinking. Part of our role – of museums generally – is to challenge that.”

The Being Human gallery opened in 2019

Inclusivity in the creative industries has been a career-long concern for Keen, who trained as an artist before enrolling for an MA in curating at the Royal College of Art, London. While there, she met Gilane Tawadros, the founding director of Iniva, a non-profit organisation set up in 1994 to champion diversity in the visual arts.

She worked intermittently as a researcher, assistant curator and freelancer for Iniva, collaborating with experts including art critic and curator Guy Brett, Iniva’s founder Stuart Hall and artist Sonia Boyce. In September 2015, after several years as a senior relationship manager at Arts Council England, she returned to Iniva as its director and chief curator.

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Challenging exclusion

One of Keen’s priorities is to extend the mentoring she enjoyed to young people. In 2017, she helped launch the Barbican/Iniva Curatorial Traineeship, which offered 12 months of paid work to aspiring curators.

“When I started at Iniva [as director] I was dismayed that the art world was still so white,” Keen says. “That I was the only black female director at a visual arts organisation in the arts council portfolio was heartbreaking. Working with the Barbican was a chance to develop talent.”

She also sees huge potential in research and education to challenge exclusionary thinking. “In art school, you were told that black artists didn’t exist, or there wasn’t a legacy of it, which was a lie. It was just ignorance.”

Wellcome Collection at a glance

The Wellcome Collection is part of the Wellcome Trust, which was set up under the will of the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome on his death in 1936.

He bequeathed a fortune to health research and had amassed a huge array of medical and ethnographic artefacts, books and visual material. Many of these items are held in the Wellcome Collection.

The collection comprises a free museum and library, which are dedicated to exploring the connections between science, medicine, life and art.

Iniva’s Stuart Hall Library, a collection of archival and published material relating to artists from diverse cultural backgrounds, is a demonstration of this. As director, Keen put the library at the heart of Iniva, hosting artists’ residencies and events. “I wanted to turn the idea of the library inside out and think about the kinds of people who were being invited into it,” she says.

There are parallels between the libraries at Iniva and the Wellcome. The latter’s medical history repository includes an experimental reading room billed as “part gallery, part library, and part events space”, while the fifth floor of the building hosts The Hub, a transdisciplinary research centre that “brings together different voices and expertise to see what new knowledge can be created”.

An arts ecology

Keen says that when the opportunity arose to apply for the Wellcome Collection role, she jumped at it. “It had a fantastic exhibition programme, the library is phenomenal and I am interested in women’s health and sexual health.”

One challenge is leveraging the Wellcome Collection’s resources. “I’ve always worked in the public sector,” Keen says. “I’ve always had to think about how I am going to make it work [financially].”

In 2015, Iniva was struggling under arts council funding cuts of 61.1%. By contrast, the Wellcome Trust’s expenditure on the collection for 2018-19 was £14m. “We should be celebrating the fact that we are well resourced and can go out there into the sector and collaborate,” Keen says.

It is no surprise that art features heavily in her plans. The collection is launching a series of podcasts with Gateshead’s Baltic art gallery exploring care and healing, and talks are under way with the London-based visual arts organisation Gasworks for artists’ residencies.

Melanie Keen at a glance

Melanie Keen joined the Wellcome Collection, London, as its director in October 2019.

She was previously the director and chief curator of the visual arts organisation Iniva, where she was instrumental in putting the Stuart Hall Library at the centre of its artistic programme.

She has also worked at Arts Council England as a senior relationship manager.

“I see us as part of an arts ecology, not a standalone museum that is part of a global health foundation,” Keen says. This sense of collaboration and experimentation permeates the reopening programme which, when we speak, is just weeks from launch.

“So much thinking has gone into the reopening,” says Keen. “Not just in terms of the content, but also what it means to provide a safe space for colleagues and visitors. It’s been a phenomenal piece of work with different parts of the Wellcome Collection and Wellcome Trust working together to make it happen,” she says.

The week before we speak, Keen visited the Barbican and Kate MacGarry gallery in east London – her first art outing for months, and clearly a restorative one.

“It was brilliant to get into another headspace,” she says. “I want people to be able to reflect differently on the past few months. Culture is such a fantastic way of not just developing our thinking or seeing things differently, but of shaping our thoughts and bringing us the unexpected.”

Maggie Gray is a writer, editor and art historian.

Melanie Keen is speaking at the Museums Association Conference in a session about the future of museums at 0945-1045 on Tuesday 3 November

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