Whose body is it anyway?

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 29.06.2016
How medical collections can reframe disability
Last week I went to see Exceptional and Extraordinary: Unruly Bodies and Minds in the Medical Museum.

It’s the latest in a string of projects by the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, which has for more than a decade now been experimenting with ways to explore, debate and improve representations of disability in museum collections. Past initiatives include Cabinet of Curiosities, the amazing performance piece by the actor Mat Fraser that brought the house down at the Museums Association conference in Cardiff two years ago. 

Like Cabinet of Curiosities, this project has enlisted artists from the disabled community to explore behind the scenes at medical and scientific museums, and respond creatively to the objects they encounter. The results are entertaining, thought-provoking, and at times, challenging.

Last week’s performance took place at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, the beating heart of the medical establishment. The portraits that line its walls – old white man after old white man - speak of a profession that, for so much of its history, excluded the voices of the people it professed to help. The college’s incredible Hunterian Museum, which I had a chance to look around before the performance, is macabre evidence of that.
 
Here is where all the college’s disabled people, women and minorities have been hiding out – as disembodied parts, suspended in formaldehyde, labelled by number. Although the museum is fully on board with the project, it still felt like a subversive act to stage it here.
 
Kicking off the evening was Let Us Tell You a Story, a performance by Deaf Men Dancing, a company of professional male dancers founded by the choreographer Mark Smith, who is also deaf. The performance was a fascinating blend of dance and sign language, seamlessly linking the two.

It told us the story of how, at an infamous conference in Milan in 1880, the education community (including such venerated names as Alexander Graham Bell) voted to ban the use of sign language in schools. That decision dealt a hammer blow to a living, vibrant language and culture, reducing deaf people, as a voiceover by Smith told us, to “inferior status”.

The dance went on to show the after-effects of this unwanted move towards 'oralism' – the stress of speech therapy exercises and hearing tests (with high-pitched beeps incorporated to ear-splitting effect on the soundtrack). It was a powerful indictment of the arrogance of experts – non-deaf people deciding they knew what was best for the deaf community.
 
Next up was the comedian Francesca Martinez (disclaimer – she is a friend of mine in real life). Martinez has “not just any palsy, cerebral palsy”, as she puts it, describing how she hates being defined by scary-sounding medical terminology (she prefers the term “wobbly”). Martinez ‘s routine, the Wobbly Manifesto, was a provocative rollercoaster - at times angry, at times poignant, always very funny.
 
Her main aim was to get the audience to interrogate the concept of normality and difference: why we are so attached to the former and fearful of the latter? Why do we define difference as wrong, needing to be fixed - especially when it’s such a beautiful miracle that any of us are here at all?
 
Again, the medical profession was in for an uncomfortable ride. In one genuinely disturbing segment, Martinez listed the various things doctors have said about her and other disabled friends: “She’ll never live a normal life"; “Just put him in a home and try for another one.”
 
Martinez described her shock at discovering, when she went behind the scenes at one museum, that the term “normal” only started being used regularly around the time of the industrial revolution, when disabled people started being separated from society and institutionalised.
 
This was what both performances drew from their museum encounters, I thought: the revelation that at certain times in the past, difference has been more accepted, less remarked-upon – that society is not just moving in a linear direction when it comes to disability. It's something that would be well worth revisiting in a museum context - is there anything we can learn from the past?

These days the medical profession is waking up to the idea of 'shared authority', acknowledging that people might just be worth listening to when it comes to their own bodies.

It’s something that museums are also starting to do in the way they tell stories about their collections. As this groundbreaking project demonstrates, museums can have a huge impact when it comes to reframing notions of normality and difference – but they must be prepared to relinquish control and answer some uncomfortable questions along the way.

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