Museums can help address empathy deficit

Humanising the history of difference
Francesca Martinez
As one of the four artists who took part in Exceptional & Extraordinary, I was invited to explore some of the UK’s most renowned medical collections.

I thought it would be interesting to combine my comedy background with the world of museums, since they’re not usually linked.

A key goal of the project was to try to bring objects to life and humanise the history of difference, so I knew that comedy would be a great tool for getting beyond the dry and serious treatment often found in exhibitions.

Initially, there were themes I wanted to explore but I left the details open before visiting my chosen museums (Science Museum, Royal College of Physicians Museum and Bethlem Museum of the Mind) to see what emerged from the experience.

The visits were fascinating and strangely moving. And after each one, my head was buzzing with ideas. The first part of the show I wrote was a 15-minute poem from the point of view of a prosthetic leg that had struck a chord with me.

I loved the idea of having a character who was a wooden leg, and I thought it would be a great way of humanising this intriguing object and letting it recount the life of the person who had depended on it.
The leg character proved to have a strong voice of its own, and what came out was unexpectedly moving. I’m really interested in juxtaposing comedy with moments of drama, and I wanted it to give the show a real depth, and surprise the audience.

Another aspect I was keen to explore with the leg’s story was the uncomfortable relationship between war and disability. During my research, I discovered that Britain has been involved in armed conflict every year since the first world war, and I couldn’t help but reflect that disability has been one of our biggest exports.

Our society views disability at birth as a sad tragedy, yet our government-directed military has inflicted disability on soldiers and civilians all over the planet. The contradiction was glaring and cried out to be examined in public.

At the Royal College of Physicians Museum, I came face to face with an imposing portrait of Sir William Osler, the celebrated medic who coined the term “cerebral palsy” – a term I’ve always hated. Here was the moustachioed visage of my nemesis, the gentleman whose well-meaning efforts lumbered my teenage self with the Unsexiest Label Imaginable.

That couldn’t go unaddressed, so I brought him back to life to explain himself in a scene in which I repeatedly interrupted him, challenging his assumptions, pointing out the consequences of his invention and finally dismissing him from the stage, striking a blow for the cerebrally palsied everywhere.

I used one of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind portraits – which gave such a powerful depiction of the inner pain that is usually invisible – as a springboard to address the political life of the country, and how its present form not only ignores disability and difference, but fosters fear and hatred of it.

I’ve grown up in a mono-culture where the pressure to conform is ubiquitous, and diversity is seen as a negative, often used by the powerful to spread division and despair. This is an attitude that is deeply unhelpful and unhealthy, and I wanted the show to remind audiences that diversity on every level – biologically, genetically, culturally – makes us stronger. We need to cherish difference as a positive because it requires us to grow, expand and adapt – all key factors in human progress.
How we approach disability tells us much about what a society values and how compassionate it is. This political aspect actually emerged from the museum visits and inspired me to finish the show with a manifesto for a kinder and more humane society.

Museums can play a vital role in informing people, in helping to address the terrible empathy deficit in society right now and in helping us to connect with each other and our past.

Francesca Martinez is a keynote speaker at this year’s Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Manchester on 16-18 November. She was one of four artists who took part in Exceptional & Extraordinary, a project led by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester, which first published this article. The project used museum collections to explore  attitudes towards difference.

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