Thursday, 26 June 2014

Collect, Exchange, Display: Artistic Practice and the Medical Museum

By Dr Sarah Symmons, June 2014

The ten papers delivered in the MacRae Gallery at the Hunterian Museum on 6th June created an enriching conference experience ably organised by Natasha Ruiz-Gómez and Mary Hunter (of McGill University). 

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the event delivered stimulating speakers and debated surprising ideas regarding the historical development of medical museums, their place in modern culture, the changing parameters of visitor engagement and, above all, the dialogue between medical models and contemporary artworks.

Keynote Speaker Christine Borland
Julia Kristeva’s 'throng of forsaken bodies' might well have been seen as abject, inhabiting an existential void by writers in the 1970s and 80s, but the general consensus here offered very different conclusions. The cadaver, specimen and forensic reconstruction tracked a new form of beauty and identity, established by Enlightenment researchers and artists, redeveloped by the acolytes of eugenics, immortalised in the bounding lines of draughtsmen, from Gottingen to Lisbon, forming moving balletic sequences in performing art and becoming the prey of the artistic imagination. 

Keynote speaker, Christine Borland, brought the discourse up to date with her Turner Prize-shortlisted achievement in 1997, which drew inspiration from laboratory research of forensic detectives and now is evolving into new poetic reconstructions from anatomical dissections inside medical schools. Throughout these proceedings 'the bits that were you', as Philip Larkin put it, fight back with such power and elegance that there is little room for the abject. Do visitors, in fact, need protecting? Some curators, notably those at the Narrenturm in Vienna, where the opening hours are probably the most restrictive of any museum in the world, clearly believe that viewing specimens of human remains will drive spectators to insanity. Others rush to instill politically correct behaviour. Terms such as ‘dignity and respect’ were often repeated like mantra or reading the rosary when speakers defined the ‘investigative wonderment’ of Whakaaro Pai in Auckland, or avoided speculating on why medical museums declined in number and interest in the mid twentieth century. 

'Life and Death Mask I' Lisa Temple-Cox 2011

Clearly more conferences are needed to explore these fascinating phenomena, and audience discussion, often passionate, drew unique illumination from the artists. Confronting the specimen as a form of self identity, self adornment and self mutilation may well provide answers to the many questions and set a wholly new series of agendas. 

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