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The history and context of our collections

Photograph of a library rare materials reading room. It is a wide shot which shows two large tables, an enquiry desk and shelving along the wall containing books. At the table in the foreground a man is sitting working on a laptop computer. Another man is standing leaning over a book support which has a fragile book resting on top of it. In the background is another reader sat at the far table.
Wellcome Collection, Rare Materials Room, Photo: Thomas SG Farnetti. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Our collections are built on collections assembled by Wellcome’s founder, Sir Henry Wellcome. In the early 20th century he founded a private historical medical museum, which, in common with others of the time, followed a racist, sexist and ableist system of cultural hierarchies. His successors collected books, manuscripts and paintings, and used these collections to present stories that privileged European medicine and the achievements of individual European scientists.

Our museum and library collections, some of which are jointly held with the Science Museum, include many items that were taken from the people who made them, by individuals who were able to do so because colonial structures of violence and control allowed them to.

We have a responsibility to be honest and transparent about the past injustices in which our collections are rooted, and we have begun a series of initiatives to change the ways we manage and use our collections.

Read more about the colonial roots of our collections, and our response.

Culturally sensitive items

We hold many items that are culturally sensitive, including sacred items, and items that should be kept secret. We are committed to working with source communities to develop appropriate care, storage, public display, access arrangements and ownership of such items.

Read our statement of intent regarding culturally sensitive items in our collections.

Human remains

We own, borrow and display human remains, and are licensed under the Human Tissue Act 2004 for their public display. We consider that all human remains should be treated with respect and with high standards of care. Our policy includes the procedure for making a claim for the return of human remains.

Read our Care of Human Remains Policy.

Our collections policies

The care and management of our collections is governed by a number of policies, plans and statements. These cover personal and sensitive information, and our approach to conservation, among other things.

Read our collections policies and plans.