Melanie Keen – Director, Wellcome Collection, London, UK
Melanie Keen joined Wellcome Collection as its director just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Wellcome is rare in the world of cultural institutions because it sits within a global health organization. While Wellcome originated as a medical research library and assemblage of objects collected by Henry Wellcome over his lifetime, casual visitors today can enjoy loafing around the reading room, looking at displays, or sitting on the cushion-lined stairwell. Keen sees families with toddlers and young children, University College London students, and other community members cross paths in the space: “It’s this fantastic meeting point between the social space that libraries have…[and] our collection.” The emphasis on the space being a social crossroads builds on Keen’s previous work as director of the Institute of International Visual Arts (INIVA), where she worked to “turn the library inside-out,” making it into more of an open social space.
Keen also talked about some of the ways that Wellcome is looking to bring people together on the exhibition side of its operations. She was surprised by just how meaningful the audience segmentation process was for Wellcome’s two permanent exhibitions, Being Human, featuring olfactory experiences, artwork, and gene editing kits; and Medicine Man, an exhibition that explores the role of colonial power in the procurement of the collection. Keen mentioned how crucial a recent audience segmentation study was to developing her own understanding of what it means to be human, and how the Wellcome Collection could work to expand the range of people it engages with, how it facilitates conversations, and think more deeply about the power inherent in being the facilitators of those conversations.
On the question of access, Keen says, “we have material at Wellcome Collection that speaks to a whole spectrum of human experience, but only a small part of society is able to engage with it…If there’s anything that I achieve in the next five years, it’s to create a space for more people to have that opportunity.”
We look to the Wellcome Collection as a model for how institutions with hybrid scope can gracefully merge diverse functions. One example of this is the Global Clinic exhibition, which ran from 2018–2019 and allowed visitors to step into a modern mobile clinic that will actually be deployed to a location lacking medical infrastructure. Another example is the respite center for National Health Service (NHS) workers, which opened up at Wellcome during lockdown last year. Keen recounts how her volunteer shifts at the respite center further reinforced the notion that the beauty of cultural institutions is in the way that sharing space and knowledge allows us to share in exploring our humanity with others. This is why Keen sees promise in the current movement “for public institutions to be more publicly accountable, to think about social justice, to think about reparation.”
Melanie Keen, Director, Wellcome Collection
David van der Leer, Principal, DVDL
The world is rapidly changing around us, and it is questionable if the old frameworks for the development of programs and space programs for museums will still be relevant tomorrow. What would museums for the 21st century become if we were to take this unprecedented time to explore new missions, visions, and (space) programs for existing and new institutions?
For this conversation in our The Future of Cultural Centers dialogue series, we spoke with Melanie Keen, Director at Wellcome Collection in London. The Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library based in London, UK, that aims to challenge how we all think and feel about health. Through exhibitions, collections, live programming, digital, broadcast and publishing, The Wellcome Collection creates opportunities for people to think deeply about the connections between science, medicine, life and art. The venue offers contemporary and historic exhibitions and collections, the Wellcome Library, an events space (The Studio), a research area (The Hub), a café, a reading room, a bookshop and conference facilities. The Wellcome Collection is part of the Wellcome Trust, which was established under Sir Henry Wellcome’s will in 1936. The space bridges the gap between a museum, a world-class Library, a meeting place and a research place where academics, artists and other creative minds to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects exploring medicine, health and well-being.
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