Sensitive Subjects Pt. 3: Acknowledging Complexity in Creative Practice Ethics

In the final part of her series on the ethics of creative practice research, Olivia Turner explores the need for ‘ethical curatorial practices’ that ‘inherently question power dynamics’ through George Vasey’s plenary talk, Curating Complexity and his time as Curator at the Wellcome Collection.

The final talk at the Sensitive Subjects: Creative Practice and Ethics workshop at Newcastle University featured George Vasey, Senior Lecturer in Curating at Teesside University, as plenary speaker. His talk, Curating Complexity, highlighted sensitive subjects from his time as Curator at the Wellcome Collection in London, creating a programme of exhibitions connecting science, medicine, life, and art. Vasey’s talk was formed as a constellation of provocations. He began by framing his talk within the ‘ethical turn’ in museums and galleries and the ubiquitous language of care within curatorial practices. As Vasey noted, this has come hand-in-hand with widespread public funding cuts, economic inequality, and social injustice, with movements such as Black Lives Matter advocating for change and social justice. Vasey considered how crises can bring positive change as a provocation for museums, galleries and curators needing to listen to and learn from those with lived experiences who ‘are bearing the full brunt of social and political violence’. Within this context, Vasey asserted the first provocation: ‘Our world is complex and a curator needs to be too’, calling for an urgent curatorial practice that should resist easy answers by ‘complicating the known and championing the uncertain’. 

Ethical curatorial practices inherently question power dynamics, and fundamentally that ‘power is never static’. Throughout Vasey’s time as Curator at Wellcome Collection, those questions and their relationship to lived experience were continually asked in the form of ‘who gets to speak for who?’. The second provocation was: ‘Why we do what we do, which is often the question we forget to ask?’. Throughout Vasey’s position at Wellcome Collection, sensitive subjects were the main focus of the exhibitions, for example the co-curated show Misbehaving Bodies: Oreet Ashery and Jo Spence (2018), which dealt with themes of death and dying (Figure 1). As part of this exhibition, external consultants were brought in to aid in the design of the exhibition space. From The Samaritans to psychotherapists, the polyphonic process was integral in the care and shaping of the exhibition, using the consultants’ expertise in sensitive subjects. Vasey detailed how the team also worked with Maggie’s, the UK cancer support charity, and were introduced to individuals undergoing cancer treatment and end of life care, which resonated with the artworks and lived experiences of the artists involved in the exhibition. Vasey convened a series of workshops with these individuals to hear their stories. On this he said: ‘One thing that they said that really stuck out to me was… [the importance of] Maggie’s Centres… which are situated within hospital grounds but are the opposite of the clinical environments.’ Therefore, by embedding this within the exhibition, Vasey noted how they designed the show as the opposite of a gallery space: ‘We wanted to clothe the gallery… like it was hugging people as they came in’. 

A photo of a dimly-lit gallery space with some people viewing the exhibition, a series of white boards covered in charts and images.
Figure 1. Installation view of Misbehaving Bodies at Wellcome Collection, London. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

‘When should I use my voice? When should I be silent?’

The final exhibition Vasey curated at Wellcome Collection was In the Air (2022), which worked with activist organisations based in London, like Mums for Lungs and Choked Up, a campaign started following the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah as a result of air pollution (Figure 2). Vasey noted how he views the role of the curator as a storyteller, saying the questions on ethics he continually returns to are: ‘When should I use my voice?’ and ‘When should I be silent and allow other voices?’ In dealing with sensitive subjects, museums have a role to play in thinking through objects, connecting lived experiences and histories with new stories.

Linking with Ruth Raynor’s previous talk in this workshop (see part two), Beyond the waves: Geographies of grief during Covid-19, and her problematising of consent and inaction, Vasey drew on Richard Sandell’s ‘immorality of inaction’ (2019) in museums. This framed inaction as the ethical imperative for curatorial practice. Vasey stressed the importance of looking back while actively moving forward through a process of ‘revisioning, rewriting, dismantling and rewiring’. In turn this moves the idea of custodianship and caring for objects to caring with objects and others. Vasey explained that within curatorial discourse there has been a move from ‘independent to interdependent curating’. To Vasey, this form of curating de-centres the curator’s voice to instead embrace ‘messiness and loose ends’ and champion a polyphonic, co-produced, community-led practice.

The process of curating sensitive subjects, Vasey argued, should not shy away from difficulty but instead acknowledge the importance of safe spaces, specifically creating spaces where trust and psychological safety are paramount. Therefore, what are the strategies for presenting difficult or traumatic histories? Vasey asked a series of questions: ‘Where does our responsibility for the public engaging with this material start and stop? How do we formalise our relationship to properly pay these communities that inform these stories? How can we expand our listening capacities as organisations and choreograph more stories around traumatic history?’. He argued that museums should not be considered as spaces that only represent the past but that also draw urgency to the curator’s role as ‘storyteller’ in actively shaping our future (Figure 3).

A photo of a dimly-lit gallery space featuring a glass case with open books inside and a smaller glass case with what looks like three rocks in it.
Figure 2. Installation view of In the Air at Wellcome Collection, London Courtesy: Steven Pocock

Curating complexity in practice

The Sensitive Subjects workshop concluded with a chaired discussion between George Vasey and Gayle Meikle, Lecturer in Contemporary Art Curation. They explored the curator’s role in disseminating creative practice work and research and its connection to the public sphere. Meikle asked Vasey, how might a curator enact in practice the conceptual provocations that were outlined in Curating Complexity? Within this articulation of the curator’s role, Vasey noted how, in practice, it is about trying to ‘decentre the curator but retain accountability’. Within recent contexts, curators are often reluctant to admit or acknowledge their power. Vasey explained how the curator’s role holds inherent power and the power to tell another person’s story. However, this should be within an ethically considered form of storytelling, using a layered process of advisory groups, critical friends, and consultants to work with a core group of a community to provide dedicated moments of feedback and critique over the course of a project. Vasey also added alternative ways of enacting ethical accountability in curatorial practice as using written and aural interpretation. For example, Vasey’s co-curated exhibition Happiness at Wellcome Collection used an audio guide that featured the voices of academics, activists, and poets. Vasey acknowledged the difficulty of interpretation and choreographing an experience that is not ‘cognitively overwhelming’. However, he said the use of exhibition design and choreographing the space through a physical and structural ‘softness’ is key to counterbalancing this and to Vasey’s curatorial role. He explained how the use of fabrics and cloaking of the gallery space is as important as providing training for the front of house team when working with sensitive subjects, for example in Misbehaving Bodies. Diplomacy and listening become a key skill for the curator’s role and the method of ‘softness’ in being able to gain trust from those they are working within the team and audience.

A photo of a museum display case. Visible is a handwritten A4 notebook page and a smaller piece of paper next to it with brightly coloured handwriting: 'Tell stories filled with facts. Make people touch and taste and know. Make people feel! feel! feel!'
Figure 3. Installation view of Octavia Butler’s notebooks in Joy and Tranquillity at Wellcome Collection, London. Courtesy: Steven Pocock

Final Thoughts

This workshop highlighted the pertinence of more critical discussions around ethics and creative practice within the field of medical humanities as they offer innovative conceptual and practical insights. It also showed the need and want from practice-led researchers to have a shareable working knowledge of ethical creative practice and to create avenues for dissemination. The creative practice-led and practice-based research currently being undertaken at Newcastle University shows the breadth and depth of its emerging dynamic and vibrant contributions to medical humanities.

Read the full Sensitive Subjects series

You can listen to a number of talks at the Sensitive Subjects: Creative Practice and Ethics workshop via Newcastle Medical Humanities Network website.

Olivia Turner is an artist and researcher based in the North East of England. She is currently working as a Postdoctoral Practice-led Researcher and Associate Lecturer at Newcastle University. Her practice moves between writing, sculpture, performance and moving image to explore themes of illness, wildness, feminism and bodily agency. Her recent works perform interventions in the Shefton Collection of Greek Art and Archaeology and frequently collaborates with Classical archaeologist Dr Sally Waite. Follow Olivia on Instagram and Twitter, and on her website www.oliviaturner.co.uk.

Sensitive Subjects was kindly supported by Newcastle University’s Institutes for Creative Practice and Humanities.

References

Sandell, Richard and Robert R. Janes. 2019. Museum Activism. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

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