‘Revise your orthodoxies’: a response to ‘Curating the Medical Humanities’

Harriet Barratt reports on Birkbeck’s ‘necessarily uncomfortable’ recent workshop on ‘Curating the Medical Humanities’ on 13th September 2018

The ‘Curating the Medical Humanities’ workshop sprang out of the exhibition Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection. Held in 2017 at Birkbeck’s Peltz Gallery, the exhibition was a chance to see selections from one of the world’s largest collections of artworks by psychiatric patients.

The exhibition brought up knotty questions around the ethics and practicalities of making public the work of those with mental health conditions. How to deal with consent – a live issue for contemporary projects as well as historic collections? Is it better to keep participants anonymous as a form of protection, or to name them, giving them full credit for their work? How do such parameters affect notions of co-production and co-creation when working with healthcare communities? How do we conceptualise and define the ‘audience’ of this kind of work? Can exhibitions seek to inform and even improve experiences of health, not only to historicise or critique them? Should an artwork ever be seen as a medical record? When is the exhibition of challenging work empowering, and when is it spectatorial? The curators of the exhibition, Fiona Johnstone and Heather Tilley, held this follow-up workshop for curators, artists, and academics to start to unpick some of these issues together.

The workshop was a thought-provoking discussion of the realities and assumptions underpinning this kind of work. As it went on, it also increasingly functioned as a case study in miniature of both the huge potential of, and the tensions inherent to, collaborative and transdisciplinary work. Issues of sector diversity, the payment or non-payment of participants, the risk of the instrumentalisation of art within museum and gallery commissioning, and the potential ‘mining’ of patient voices for institutional gain gave a much-needed, sometimes necessarily uncomfortable, angle to the day.

As such, the workshop both achieved what it set out to do – namely to provide a space for discussion – and highlighted the need for a much more widespread examination of these questions.

The nail bars of the medical humanities

The first part of the day was helpful in terms of considering what the social and conceptual role of museums and galleries can or should be. In their introduction to the day, Fiona Johnstone and Heather Tilley framed curation as an act of ‘recuperation’. Artist Sue Austin spoke about her work – live performances of ‘wheelchair diving’ – as ‘a thinking space’ for the nuance and complexity of daily life. Katherine Ott (The National Museum of American History) – who spoke wonderfully on the need for the sector to ‘revise our orthodoxies’ – sees the best museum practice as something which can ‘make space’ for individual, relational representations of disability.

I loved the idea of museums and galleries as cultural spaces that are ‘other’, placed outside of the daily routine and highlighting the complexities of the world in which they sit (much like Foucault’s idea of ‘heterotopias’, such as nail bars, airport lounges, and cemeteries). Such spaces offer a kind of ‘quasi-eternity’ in which the shared cultural world is simultaneously ‘represented, contested and inverted’ (Foucault 1984, 26, 24). So too can museums and galleries work to preserve and transform the narratives embedded within their collections and collaborations – if they choose to. And here was where the workshop got necessarily, fascinatingly, political.

The authentic voice

The room was united on the importance of co-creating art and curatorial displays with the communities they seek to engage. Artist and curator Sam Curtis, in his talk on the creation of the Bethlem Gallery show ‘Our Future Likes’ with young psychiatric patients, pointed out that co-production does not, however, necessarily spring from a straightforward motivation: to whose agenda, Curtis asks, do we carry out the processes of collaboration, and how can it be kept authentic? This questioning of the sector’s motivating forces was a theme of the day; Katherine Ott asked: ‘For whom do we work?’

We are used to seeing the implied detachment of both academia and the cultural institution from their objects of study as important, if open to challenge. It protects participants from misconduct and the misuse of their information or work, and, in theory, ensures an objective representation of the subject in hand. It is, however, a misleading reflection of how we work together, or how health, knowledge and meaning are constituted – all three being subjective, fleshy, nuanced beasts. At its worst, badly-managed outreach can replicate the power structures which a curatorial narrative often seeks to challenge. Unless we consider issues such as ownership of the terms of debate, control over project outputs, and participant benefit (or payment) head-on, co-creation remains too often a top-down activity.

strong © Jane Fradgley

It can also be a dislocating experience for those wearing more than one hat. As artist Jane Fradgley said in relation to her work held (beautiful, haunting photographs of Victorian asylum restraint clothing), the experience of being one week an artist and the next a service user – potentially even in the same spaces – brings these questions of control and agency to the fore. Tony Heaton, sculptor and Chair of Shape Arts, gave meat to this argument with a series of photographs of display blurbs that were out of the eyeline of anyone in a wheelchair, highlighting that inclusivity and accessibility often only goes so far – even in exhibitions seeking to engage the very audiences they are unwittingly excluding. This kind of design approach served to underscore Jocelyn Dodd’s talk on the idea of ‘unruly bodies’, seen as a problem for society to ‘fix’. The museum and gallery sector, one would think, is ideally placed to challenge these stigmatised concepts from design stage onwards, if it is willing to do so.

‘Appropriate objects’

In particular, the institutional ease with which artists’ commissions can be cancelled if they are not thought to be providing the ‘right thing’ proved a sticking point between different contributors to the day. This is particularly pertinent to explorations of health narratives. Necessarily individual and often contested, they often deal with difficult areas of identity, experience and diagnosis, all of which may trigger traumatic responses or be easily misrepresented. In terms of museums and galleries’ roles as heterotopian spaces, artistic explorations are part of a wider, ongoing, frequently unsettling discussion with no right or wrong answer or output. Within their role as income-generating entities seeking visitor approval, though, other considerations and priorities come into play. How to strike the right balance? Whose voices end up taking priority?

As Katy Barrett from the Science Museum pointed out, co-productive work often focuses on one area within a much bigger process, so can end up being retrospective. Sophie Goggins’ talk on her work at National Museums Scotland demonstrated the huge personal investment of curators in their consultative work – here, fascinatingly, with prosthetics and genetics patients. When asked what their ideal exhibition would include, Goggins’ co-creators came up with a wealth of hugely associative, abstract ideas, from revolving doors to nonsensical dictionaries, both representing patients’ confusion. Neither were doable within the parameters of the institution, though, which had a clear sense of what constitutes an ‘appropriate object’.

Of course, there are some spaces which may not be right for challenging material. A hospital ward may fall into this category, as explored by Lucy Zacaria, Head of Arts at the Imperial College Healthcare Trust (a discussion of the role of the arts and humanities within medical treatment itself was something we ran out of time to discuss, but it would be good to revisit this in more depth). What, then, would a ‘Museum of Patienthood’, designed as such from conception onwards, look like, we wondered?

‘Holding’ productive tension

Tension – such as that brought up by the idea of ‘appropriate objects’ and the power to decommission artists’ responses to a particular brief – is important.It can be a healthy, productive route to stronger collaboration, if people are able to sit with the inevitable discomfort in the meantime. Martha Fleming, for example, spoke eloquently about the ‘deep soft tissue’ of any normative practice, which can only be reached by dismantling the constraints within which one works.

Jane Fradgley’s idea of ‘holding’ feels appropriate again here. How can we sit with and make space for the tensions inherent to cross-sector collaboration in a way that doesn’t diminish the contributions of any party? How, too, do we ‘hold’ the voices we seek to make visible, whether patient, artist, participant, institution or member of the public, while making sure that we are not stymying debate or expression? How do we diversify the voices of those making the decisions; how do we share out the decisions more fairly within institutional frameworks which often render this work post-hoc? Can we change the structure of the institutions within which we work to help us to do this? Rather than falling back on traditional models, can we see the medical humanities as a living, breathing, co-created set of authentic discussions and activities, which encompasses but is not defined by either academic status or institutional context?

Co-creation demands a meeting place of people over protocols. Or, to put it less alliteratively, important considerations around safeguarding, consent and deliverability need not preclude an equality of exchange. Jocelyn Dodd spoke helpfully of the ‘trading zone’ model in which all participants’ skills and experiences are valued equally. Meanwhile, Victoria Tischler pointed out models of ‘supported studios’ such as Action Space, which provides an experimental space for artists with learning disabilities within safe, ethical parameters and with artist guidance on hand.

‘Revise your orthodoxies’

Many of these questions, though, remain unresolved. I also wondered how far the patient or participant is shoved yet again to the background of discussions about institutional structures and parameters – if we are seeking to foreground their voices, they need to be in the room while we discuss how best to do this.

In acting as a space to begin these conversations, the workshop was a success. It highlighted, however, how far we have to go in revising our own orthodoxies, to return to Katherine Ott’s rallying call. I for one came away with more questions: how do we ‘hold’ these productive tensions, hold them up to the light, and work together to work through them? What next?


Harriet Barratt is a doctoral student in the School of English at Sussex, researching how people relate to and represent material objects in illness. With a background in arts partnership management, she is a member of the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals (BSUH) NHS Trust’s Onward Arts Group, helping to advise on the arts and culture programme across the Trust. In 2016-17, Harriet spent ten months in the Science Museum’s Medicine Collection, working particularly with its prosthetics and asylum objects.



Foucault, Michel. 1984. “Des Espaces Autres”. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5: 46–49. Originally delivered in lecture form, March 1967. Translated by Jay Miskowiec. (1986). “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”. Diacritics 16, no. 1: 22–27.

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