Detail from The Plait 1922, Eric Gill, pencil on paper (c) Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft collection. Features Gill's daughter, Petra, who was sexually abused by the artist. Inscription on the drawing reads 'Drawn for the hair, not a portrait otherwise' - it was not intended for show or as a piece of artwork but as a study for a woodblock.

Eric Gill exhibition to confront child sex abuse

Patrick Steel, 12.04.2017
Ditchling Museum considers artist's biography alongside his art
The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft in East Sussex is to hold an exhibition of artist Eric Gill’s work that also confronts his sexual abuse of two of his daughters.

Eric Gill: The Body will feature 80 works on loan from public and private collections, including works featuring his daughter Petra that were made at the time of his abuse of her.

The exhibition has taken over two years to put together. The museum worked with child sex abuse survivor organisations on the impact the exhibition could have on those who experienced abuse, and the language it uses. It also sought PR advice from other museums, and guidance from the Museums Association (MA) on the requirements of its Code of Ethics.

Front of house staff at Ditchling received training from staff at the Wellcome Collection, which has experience of exhibitions dealing with difficult subjects. And the founder of the National Association of People Abused as Children trained staff in how survivors of abuse might experience the exhibition.

“I think if a museum holds an object that is controversial it has a duty to share that information, and ensure that the museum has the language and infrastructure to deal with it,” said the museum’s director Nathaniel Hepburn.

“Museums and galleries have not addressed the effect of Gill’s biography on our enjoyment and appreciation of his artwork. That central question is a new approach, unpacking and unpicking that.

“When looking at any Gill depiction, when you know the biography, visitors ask the question, am I looking at a striking drawing or am I looking at the actions of a man I find reprehensible? There are people at both ends of that spectrum.

“The question is whether art transcends any human biography or whether it is acceptable to ever show art by someone guilty of such horrendous crimes.

“The exhibition is framed as a question, inviting visitors to think and consider their own responses. For most that will change with each artwork they are looking at, each work will elicit different responses in each person.

"We are very excited about the exhibition as, along with examining a very complicated issue, we are showing over 80 works by Gill including a major sculpture and a number of drawings that have never been exhibited before, as well as loans from the V&A, Ashmolean, Courtauld, and others."



Hepburn participated in a session at the Museums Association’s (MA) conference in Glasgow last year entitled Free to Speak: confronting censorship and controversy, in which delegates were asked to vote on the question “Have you ever consciously withheld information from audiences due to its controversial nature?” Of the 63 delegates that participated, 51% voted yes and 49% voted no.

Alistair Brown, the MA’s policy officer, said: “It is brave but right that museums should tackle these difficult issues, and hopefully it will pave the way for other museums to do the same in the future.

“I hope the museum will be able to pass on its process to others in the sector and this will make it easier for others to emulate the Ditchling approach.”

Eric Gill: The Body will run from 29 April to 3 September.

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