Melanie Keen is the Director of the Wellcome Collection, where she shapes and directs the work of the museum and library dedicated to exploring human experience and health. One of her ambitions is to showcase different perspectives and voices contained within the material in the collection. From the model of a human eye to Inuit Arctic snow goggles, from carved wooden figures that brim with cultural symbolism, to Lord Nelson’s cut-throat razor, a seemingly straightforward work of cataloguing historical material brings to light problems of inclusivity. Her leadership has ensured that Wellcome Collection is moving away from a ‘curiosity cabinet’ feel towards playing a key role in giving to the stories and experience of the communities from which they come.
Melanie grew up in East London of Jamaican parentage and describes the public library at the end of her road as her second home. It was there she learnt to play chess and developed her love of books. A Royal College of Art graduate, she started her career at Chelsea College of Art as a researcher working in the library and archive, the culmination of which was a book called Recordings: Select Bibliography of Contemporary African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian British Art co-authored with Liz Ward. She then went onto become a curator at Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) for seven years. She has worked as an arts consultant and after a period at Arts Council England, she returned to Iniva as Director, describing it as a pioneering organisation. At the core of Iniva is the Stuart Hall Library, which now resides on the grounds of Chelsea College of Art. it is here, in this library that students can learn about artists of African and Asian descent who are not always included in art history curriculum. Building on the work of others, Melanie insists that these artists are very much part of a critiqued practice being written about and exhibited, not to be ignored or forgotten.
Melanie has many favourite works in the Wellcome Collection. One of her favourites is by artist Dolly Sen and is part the permanent exhibition Being Human. It is a seemingly ordinary looking red, plastic collection box with the words ‘Help the normals’ printed across its front. This piece, among others, serve as a powerful way to shift the narrative around disability. Current exhibitions, Rooted Beings and In the Air describe best what Wellcome Collection is and can be in the future, drawing a clear relationship between humans and planetary health, creating a greater awareness of environmental justice and the climate emergency. Her bold and brave vision, which sits at the intersection of science, medicine, art and life, brings cultural inclusivity to broaden our understandings of health, inspiring fresh art and research to avoid the danger of a single story.