Being Human, the new permanent gallery at Wellcome Collection explores what it means to be human in the 21st century. In creating the exhibition, the Wellcome Collection worked with two advisory panels – one composed of scientists, and the other of artists, activists, and consultants that was organized in collaboration with the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, focusing on the representation of disability and difference. The resultant experience embodies the idea that all can and should feel valued and connected.
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Richard Sandell is Professor of Museum Studies and co-director of RCMG at the University of Leicester. His recent books include Museums, Moralities and Human Rights (2017) and Museum Activism (2019) with Robert Janes. His recent collaborative projects include Disruption, Dissent, Disorder: making new narrative of disability with Wellcome Collection and Girl Boy Child with David McAlmont and the National Trust (part of the Prejudice and Pride national public program which won the Pink News Third Sector Equality Award in 2019.) He co-leads the current RCMG collaboration with the National Trust, Everyone Welcome.
Clare Barlow curated Being Human, a new permanent gallery at Wellcome Collection that opened September 2019. Previously she curated the exhibition Queer British Art, 1861-1967 at Tate Britain and worked in curatorial teams at Tate and the National Portrait Gallery. She is interested in ethical approaches to curatorial activism and in how museums can better engage with themes of social justice.
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Being Human – Wellcome Collection
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Suse Anderson: G’day, and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson.
Ed Rodley: And I’m Ed Rodley, and together, we’ll be digging into another important issue driving conversation and practice in the field.
Suse: This month, we’re going to dive in deep into some of the thinking and practices behind “Being Human,” the new permanent gallery at Wellcome Collection in the UK, which explores what it means to be human in the 21st century. But before we get into the discussion, Ed, you actually had a chance to go and see this exhibition. Can you talk to us about it? Describe it to us?
Ed: Yeah, sure. Happy to. While we were trying to set up this month’s episode, I wound up having to go to London for other business, and I thought, “Oh great,” that way we can actually have a chance to go see the gallery before we talk to our guests Richard and Clare about it. And it is certainly something that if anybody is in that part of the world, I would recommend that you go check it out. It is a remarkable experience in terms of both the way that they have framed the conversation. So it’s not an exhibition about ability or disability as much as it is about what it means to be human and how different that is, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clearer example of how really being intentional about the lens through which you view a subject can make you create a completely different kind of experience.
Like at first blush, it does not look like it is a completely different kind of experience. It looks like a museum gallery, but all of the activities, the text, the media pieces in there, really come at issues of the diversity of the human experience in terms of what we can and can’t do and what is normal and what is considered not and how that changes in ways that I’ve never seen done before. And I’ve been to a lot of shows and seen a lot of exhibitions that try to tackle issues similar to this, but always from that… I guess that normative viewpoint, and their ability to dispense with that completely throughout the experience I found really breathtaking.
Suse: Yeah. As an exhibit designer, how does this affect your thinking then, going forward?
Ed Rodley: Oh, god.
Suse: Putting you on the spot completely.
Ed: I have so much more work to do now just to try to bring that same level of thoroughness, I think, is how I’d describe it. So many of the details, large and tiny, they obviously sweated. Their language is very intentional. Their label copy is really great. Even the color choices in the gallery in terms of what things are contrasty and what things aren’t, the minute you pick at any of them you can sort of see immediately, oh yeah, they meant to do this for a reason, and that is just really, really amazing to just sort of take in as a professional, let alone as a visitor who’s like wow, this stuff is really interesting. There were quite a few times in that relatively small gallery where I managed to be surprised, which, as somebody who goes to a lot of museums, that doesn’t happen as much as it used to so that, in and of itself, was a surprise; how surprised I was, which I think is a sign that they were onto something good.
Suse: Yeah, that’s really lovely. I think before we go too much further, it’s a really good time for us to then listen to Clare and to Richard talking about the process of this exhibition, and maybe we can come back to you a little bit at the end for a few final thoughts.
Ed: Yeah, let’s get into it.
Clare Barlow curated “Being Human,” a new permanent gallery at the Wellcome Collection in London that opened in September 2019. Previously, she curated the exhibition “Queer British Art 1861–1967” at Tate Britain, and worked in curatorial teams at Tate and the National Portrait Gallery. She is interested in ethical approaches to curatorial activism, and in how museums can better engage with themes of social justice.
Suse: Richard Sandell is professor museum studies and co-director of RCMG at the University of Leicester. His recent books include Museums, Moralities and Human Rights, in 2017, and Museum Activism, from 2019, with Robert Janes. His recent collaborative projects include “Disruption, Dissent, Disorder,” making new narrative of disability with Wellcome Collection, and “girl.boy.child,” with David McAlmont, and the National Trust, part of the Prejudice and Pride national public program, which won the PinkNews’ Third Sector Equality Award in 2019. He co-leads the current RCMG collaboration with the National Trust, Everyone Welcome. Richard, Clare, welcome to Museopunks.
Richard Sandell: Hi. Great to be here.
Clare Barlow: Thank you.
Suse: It’s so lovely to have you both here. So we’re going to talk about… today about “Being Human,” but also about how you’re both thinking about and approaching your work. So “Being Human” is a new permanent gallery at the Wellcome Collection which explores what it means to be human in the 21st century, which feels like a pretty massive topic. Clare, could you start by introducing the exhibition to us and tell us a little bit more about it?
Clare: Well, the exhibition’s organized around four big themes; genetics, minds & bodies, infection, and changing environments, or environmental breakdown. But I would say, more importantly, everything in it is held together by some really big ideas. The idea that we are all different. The idea that we are all valuable, and the idea that for better and worse, we’re all connected. And I say for better and worse because I think sometimes being connected is awesome. We support each other, we lift each other up, and sometimes it has negative effects through sort of prejudice or the consequences of environmental breakdown, for example.
But the whole gallery is kind of exploring it through a wide range of different objects. We’ve got a DIY CRISPR kit. We’ve got some amazing artworks, which include a collecting tin by the artist Dolly Sen, which is labeled for the fictional charity, Help the Normals, and says on it in tiny, tiny letters, “Give generously; they won’t.” And we’ve, all the way through to a protest banner from Standing Rock, and our most substantial art commission, Yinka Shonibare’s Refugee Astronaut. And really in thinking about the space, I wanted it to be one in which hopefully all visitors might feel challenged by certain objects or narratives, but they would also might feel affirmed, perhaps unusually affirmed, for some visitors who’ve been traditionally marginalized from museums, and that they would feel welcome. And to do that, we wanted to create a space that was inclusive and accessible so that it could be enjoyed by the widest possible range of visitors.
Ed: And it shows. Boy, it’s an amazing project. I really enjoyed the time I spent there. In designing the exhibition, I understand that you guys worked with two different advisory panels?
Clare: Yeah. We worked with two panels, one which I set up with Richard, and with Leicester. And that was a panel of disabled activists, artists, and consultants. And the other panel was a panel of scientists. And in addition to that, we were having conversations with a much wider group of people. So there were lots of different perspectives who were feeding into the space, and all of those conversations, I think, helped us to see both the object list and the interpretation differently.
Ed: Right on. One thing I’d like to push at a little bit is I know that in the field nowadays we talk a lot about inclusion and bringing in different voices. Could you say a little bit about how that actually played out? Because it seems clear to me that you listened to a lot of different people, and then acted based on whatever conversations were you had. Can you think of any specifics where things came about differently than they might have if you had stuck with the more traditional, entirely internal discussions of what this particular audience needed?
Clare: Absolutely, and I should say that I think nothing in the space would have been quite the same or interpreted in quite the same way without that input. It really was a kind of transformative process for us. I think crucially, it was a process that started right at the beginning of the project. At the beginning of the project, Richard and I were having a conversation, and we’d both come out of doing… being part of the sort of queer projects or 2017, marking the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality, and we were kind of joking together about the fact that no museum was going to do this again for another 10 years, perhaps not in our lifetime. So part of the challenge that we were both acutely aware of was the fact that museums are often a lot bolder in their temporary programming than they are in their permanent galleries.
If… When they bring people on board to be part of the conversation, it tends to be around a temporary project, and I’d just been appointed to do a permanent gallery, and I really wanted to scrutinize this question of how could we do it differently. How could we do it so those voices were not marginalized, and were not given a kind of little bite of the gallery where they would sit by themselves and everything else would be left separate? Because I think that way of approaching it actually reinforces ghettoization in the museum. What you end up doing is saying this is the normal museum for normals, and then this is the small identity project.
And it doesn’t really matter which characteristic you choose, whether it’s disability or whether it’s gender, or whether it’s sexuality. What you’re basically saying is these people are not part of the institution’s DNA. So I knew that to integrate these perspectives so that every perspective was treated authentically and appropriately and every perspective had equal right to be present in the space, I needed to be reaching across the aisle to the widest possible range of advisors and that it was really important… There’s a really great principle from disabled activism, which is “Nothing about us without us.” And that phrase really stuck with me in the development, and I really wanted to make sure that we set up a consultation process that was truly accountable, and that truly lived out that process.
So we met regularly, and each time we met, I reported back on what I had done in response to the panel’s previous recommendation, and then we went forward to the next stage of discussion. And it was a really productive and creative process.
Suse: Yeah. Richard, this obviously intersects a lot with your research interests and with your work in representing disability activism and agency in the museum. You noted that attempts to counter the under and misrepresentation of disabled people within museum narratives have, until recently, been rare. This panel was organized in collaboration with the University of Leicester’s Research Center for Museums and Galleries. Can you talk about your involvement and how this is informing your work and your research?
Richard: Yeah. The Research Center’s been doing work around the way in which disability is publicly portrayed for about 15 years now, and we’ve always worked with disabled people to privilege their voices and perspectives, and to see the site… the museum as a site for more progressive portrayals that can challenge the deeply entrenched negative attitudes towards disabled people which persist in every aspect of life. We’ve done a whole range of different projects, different interventions, events, activities, exhibitions and so on over that 15 year period. So when Clare approached us and said, “How does that form of interruption, that sort of form of disrupting of dominant ways of seeing disability… How does that work when you try and push that through a gallery that’s going to be in place for at least a decade?”
And that kind of conundrum really excited us, and so the collaboration was born. And I think, reflecting on it, it has… Our ambition, collective ambition between Wellcome and the Research Center, grew on both sides, really, as the project developed. So we started out… I think… was thinking about how we can disrupt medicalized ways of seeing disability and offer alternative perspectives, but where we ended up was, I think, much more ambitious, much more radical, but also… Hard to describe, really. It’s the way in which disability is seamlessly and in some ways uncontroversially portrayed, which is where I think its radical qualities lie.
So Ed mentioned about this trend in the museum sector towards bringing in multiple voices, and I reflected with Clare soon after the opening. Might even have been the opening night, Clare. You might remember that one of the things I was most excited about and proud of through the collaboration is that there are multiple voices in that gallery, undoubtedly, but it’s not a cacophony. It’s not a free-for-all. It doesn’t hold up disabled people’s lives for scrutiny and question and debate. It is a rich mix of vibrant voices and perspectives, but all sharing and explicitly framed by commitment to progressive and nondiscriminatory, nonprejudiced attitudes towards disabled people. And I think that’s really new. That’s really a great feature of the collaboration.
Clare: Yes, I think that was something that I also felt really profoundly, that… I mean I think one of the things that now increasingly actually strikes me in looking at some of my initial thoughts and how narratives of disability are represented is that it feels like so many of them fall into these kind of stereotypes, and the two… there’s two very dominant, negative stereotypes. One is the idea of a disabled person as object of pity, and the other is the disabled person as hero. And although I think people realize that the object of pity is problematic, I think we’ve still got a little bit of work to do to kind of unpick what’s problematic about the sort of heroic model.
But it’s equally reductive in that it easily turns into, “Oh, this person is amazing. They can make a cup of tea just like you, able-bodied visitor.” And I think one of the things that really struck me was how kind of underlying these assumptions are. How kind of… How much they have shaped our own thinking, such that we would unquestionably… Sorry. Unquestioningly might consider putting an object that is just a representation of somebody going about their everyday life for a disabled body or for a disabled person, but we might not do that for somebody who is non-disabled. And I think that what was really exciting about the collaboration was seeing these ways of rethinking everything so we weren’t falling into these traps.
Ed: Yeah. So you mentioned that there had been concrete changes to almost every part of the exhibition based on your conversations. I was wondering if you could tell us about some of these changes, because one of the things that I noticed most walking into the gallery for the first time, having read a little bit about how much thought had gone into inclusivity and the universal design of the space, was that I didn’t have a visual of well, what would a space like that look like? And it looked like a gallery. And it was only once I started interacting with the space, reading the labels, looking at the objects, and sort of getting accustomed to the design of the space that I started to see just how deeply you had thought about pretty much every aspect of it.
The example that hit me sort of the hardest was the fact that there are several large video projections, and instead of having a bench in front of them, the bench is set off to one side, because if you’re a person using a wheelchair or any kind of assistive device, if you couldn’t sit in front on the bench, then you couldn’t sit in front of the screen, and that had never occurred to me. Even though I’ve worked in this field for years and done tons of this kind of stuff, and those simple touches I find really, really powerful. Richard or Clare, if you could think of any other examples of those concrete changes that you made as a result of working closely with these advisory panels, I’d love to hear them.
Clare: Well, I mean the one you’ve picked up on is actually one of my favorites, too, because it’s not something that I had ever thought about, but having Tony Heaton in the room as part of our discussion, he is a wheelchair user, and he… That was one of the first things he raised. And it was so obvious, and it was of those things which it is just a question of having somebody in the room who has had that experience. I mean he said, “The thing that really annoys me is I can never see the screen, and if I’m there with somebody else who isn’t a wheelchair user, we can’t be next to one another.” It was very clear as soon as he said it.
But you actually also pick up on something else, which was a really important part of the concept for the gallery. We didn’t want it to look like an accessible space, and by that I mean accessibility is often done very clunkily, with lots of sort of ramps and handles, which can be really great, but often I wanted to show that being accessible could still be part of a beautiful design aesthetic. That it didn’t mean we had to compromise on the aesthetics of a space. It was just a question of making sure that we had thought about it from the early stages of the design.
I mean it’s no harder, for example, to design your standard plinth height at being 80 centimeters rather than 120, or 110. But if you don’t know that having it at 80 will make it more accessible for people, then it’s very hard for you to take that into consideration. So actually the design also drew on a lot of prototyping, and we brought in people who used different wheelchairs, we built one of the plinths out of MDF, and we basically just invited them to critique it and to say what was working and what wasn’t. We tried captions at different angles. We had a plastic box to sort of be like a hood for an object, and we had some objects from around my house to sort of stand-in for the objects. So we were doing some very hands-on testing as part of this process.
Richard: I was going to mention as well about that lovely example that both Ed and Clare have raised about the offset bench, because I think it works. We like it so much because it works in a number of different ways. So it changes the way people use that space, and it does mean if you’re someone who uses a wheelchair, you can experience that video work as equitably as anyone else. But I also think it has this really subtle kind of symbolic value, which is evident in multiple ways across the gallery, because it shows that the experience of disabled people isn’t a secondary one or a bolter one.
In fact, if you’re a wheelchair user and you occupy that central position, you get that kind of perfect view of the artwork, then that’s great, and in every other gallery you visit, you are off to the side. You never get that kind of perfect position. There’s something that it changes the way people use the space, but it also symbolically shows the principles and the values that underpin… the intellectual ideas that underpin the whole project, which is, as Clare said at the outset, that we’re all different. We’re all valued. There is no hierarchy around those differences, and I think that’s why it kind of works so well. I suppose-
Clare: Yeah. Sorry.
Richard: No, go on.
Clare: I was going to say another favorite of mine is the black bases of the plinths-
Suse: Me too.
Clare: Because it looks so classy against the light oak floor and then these beautiful sort of washed tops of the plinths. And you wouldn’t think of it as being an accessibility feature, but if you have a visual impairment, having the black bases gives you a very clear visual contrast with the floor, and it just makes the space instantly more navigable for you.
Suse: Yeah, I think… That was the one actually… Looking at pictures, because I have not seen the exhibition, but looking at the pictures, that’s what stood out for me, is these beautiful black bases that were just striking but also that had such practical purpose, and it made me wonder about all of the other choices that could be made in museum exhibit design that are beautiful and tactile and interesting, but also that actually just make the exhibit better for people. What are the concrete tactics, Clare? I’ll start you with this. What are the concrete tactics around exhibition design then that you’re going to take from other projects that you work on beyond “Being Human,” and build into those projects? So the things that you learned, whether it’s about the black bases, whether it’s about the centralization of the wheelchair space, that you can take to other spaces and confidently build into your exhibitions?
Clare: Absolutely. I mean there’s several, but I think the most important one for me is about process, which is always the unsexy sibling of the actual outcome. But-
Suse: Oh, no. Process is the sexy sibling at this podcast.
Clare: I think there was… One thing that was really crucial to the success of this was just talking to people early enough. We started the conversation when the object list was still in flux. I hadn’t written any of the interpretation yet. The design was still able to be changed, and it’s no harder or more expensive to design accessibly and beautifully than it is to design inaccessibly. So taking account of that from the very beginning kind of enabled us to shape up the whole project with that in mind. The other big process one was actually a big piece of work, which we did with the disabled consultants, which was around writing guidelines for the interpretation in the space based on the social model of disability.
And we did this great activity where we brought in a group of people from the museum and we went into small groups, each group with one of the disabled consultants, and we rewrote labels for objects from the perspective of a social model of disability. And this was down and dirty object labeling. I mean this was not… The purpose of this exercise was not to write something that would then go straight into the space. The purpose was for us to think about what was needed in the interpretation to shift our perspective so that we were writing from the perspective of society being the problem, rather than the difference of a person, their impairment perhaps being the problem.
It was surprisingly hard, but it was a great learning experience, and on the back of that, Richard and Jocelyn at Leicester helped to develop interpretation guidelines from the principle of a social model, and then I used those guidelines to write the label for every object in the space. And to check that I’d done that correctly, I then pinned up the first draft of the interpretation, including in some cases variant captions for objects, and gave our disabled consultants Post-it notes and they critiqued them. And they went round and told me how I’d done.
And I think things like that, although they can make you feel quite vulnerable as a curator because you’re basically putting your work out there to be criticized, I think that absolutely essential if you’re serious about this kind of work. You need to open yourself up to be having that conversation with people who are being generous enough to share their lived experience with you. And generous enough to share at times their anger or their pain, but being generous enough to tell you where you were getting it wrong. And for me, that was a very moving but also, for me, a really transformative experience in helping me to think differently.
Ed: Yeah. I’d like to find out a little bit more about that. Richard, you were obviously involved in the creation of these guidelines based on what Clare just said. Can you talk a little bit more about that process? What the guidelines are, what the model of… What did you call it? The model of social disability is? Can you tell us more about that as a framework?
Richard: Sure. So the social model of disability is probably a good place to start. It’s the cornerstone of the global disability rights movement, and it’s been so powerful in transforming the way we think about physical and mental differences and holds enormous potential for museums to draw on and adapt and think about in the way that they tell their own stories, present their own narratives. But essentially a social model of disability stands in contrast to a medical model. The medical model says your difference is the problem. If your legs don’t work or you have poor eyesight, that’s the cause… source of the problem, and that’s what we need to fix. So we need to fix it by prosthetic legs, or we need to fix it by some kind of operation or treatment to restore you to this ideal person. This whole and perfect body and mind.
So it holds this very normative view of humans and requires that we all kind of aspire to achieve that. The social model says difference is everywhere, difference has always existed. And my problems in navigating the world are not down to my differences. They’re down to a disabling world that doesn’t accommodate those differences. Doesn’t make adjustments to ensure that my life is as respected and valued as anyone else’s. So that’s kind of the social model in a nutshell, and we brought in those ideas and we unpacked them in great detail with the Wellcome Collection team. And we always work… We talk about collaborative research in RCMG, in our Research Center, so we don’t come in do research on an organization like Wellcome.
We’re invited in. We create teams, in this case of disabled and non-disabled people, of… and curators, educators, researchers, people with lived experience. We come together to generate new knowledge and insights. So that process that Clare describes of thinking about these big ideas and looking at how they might be used to frame new exhibit labels was really new, was really exciting for all of us involved to be able to play with those ideas in a creative and challenging way, and see how they could frame new interpretation in a medical museum, a medical museum that is steeped in medical thinking, and as a result is hugely problematic for many disabled people who find that in medical museums, disabled people are typically held up as curiosities for the nondisabled gaze, and we wanted to fundamentally change that relationship by talking differently about difference.
So we developed those guidelines. We’d be really happy to share them with you Suse, and with the listeners to the podcast.
Suse: That would be amazing.
Richard: They hold a lot of potential, I think. One of the bits that really sticks in my mind from that process of… that Clare described, is… So we created these new labels, and I remember Clare saying, “Yeah, they sound good to me. I can’t see any massive problem in using those.” So I’ll take them away and I’ll think about them and I’ll write some of those labels using those principles, and I’ll also share them with our other panel of consultees, the scientists, the medics, the people who are also stakeholders in this gallery. And I remember you came back, Clare, and you said it was great, because none of the labels that we produced in that kind of guerrilla format were problematic, if I remember correctly, for your scientists and medics.
And that was a real moment for me, where I realized instead of just disrupting… So keeping a kind of medicalized narrative and puncturing it with sort of disability social model perspective, instead, the whole terrain shifted and we began to see how progressive ways of thinking about disability could be threaded through the entire gallery. And if you usualized or normalized as just the right way to think about it, it wasn’t always in conflict with a kind of medic perspective. And that to me felt like a real game-changer.
Clare: Yeah. I think what was really exciting of running these two very different consultations at once was how often we had agreement between them. I think for the scientists and medics, what was exciting was that here was a gallery that was acknowledging the emotional landscape of health and that was acknowledging that their work wasn’t a dispassionate, bloodless practice. It was something which they cared very passionately about, which was developed in a range of different ways, that often that development was painful, often it was hard, and often it came at a cost. And we had objects which explored some of that in the gallery.
But that those perspectives kind of could sit alongside each other, I think partly because of curatorial decision I’d taken very early on in the process, which was that every object was just in the space to speak on its own behalf, or on the behalf of its creator. We weren’t trying to create an overarching narrative, where we would tell people what to think about genetics, for example. Instead, what we’d give them was kind of these quite open-ended propositions, objects that really kind of could spark their imagination, or that would open up a question from a particular angle, but which could be there in all of their difference throughout the gallery.
And I think that worked… I think that helped, and helped kind of tie it together. I’d like to also highlight another thing, which I was thinking about in response to the social model. An example where having that insight really helped us shape objects and interpretation. One of the things that Richard told us very early on in the project was about a previous piece of work he’d done, where they’d taken a group of disabled people who’d been quite nervous to a hospital museum, and they’d come back really excited because one of the objects was a wheelchair that had been used by the matron of the museum.
And they really liked the fact that this kind of really broke down the barriers of the kingdom of the sick and the kingdom of the healthy, that you had this person in a position of power and authority in the museum who was a wheelchair user. And I was trying to think about how we could capture that spirit in our gallery, and it came out through the display on prosthetics, where instead of just buying some prosthetics and then writing a label about prosthetic users, which… or about… We’d moved away from sort of trying to write narratives of progress, so I mean I think we had moved away from the medical model on that.
We asked members of Wellcome Trust’s staff to contact their friends, their family, people they knew, and to source us some used prosthetics. And then we worked for people who owned these prosthetics, so that the caption for each prosthetic is by somebody who owned it in their own words. And that kind of-
Suse: Oh, I love that.
Clare: That kind of felt like that broke things down on two levels. It broke down the idea of the museum is the kingdom of the healthy, and that disability is an anomaly that has come into this space, and that is perhaps only there under sufferance. It made it clear that… I mean I think I was particularly proud of the introductory label for that one, which actually just started out, “All of us at some point in our lives are likely to use a prosthetic,” which is absolutely true, but it’s not something we normally think about. But I mean and then you have these wonderful different responses to prosthetics, from some people who are like, “This is my prosthetic and it really transformed my life” through to one response, which is, “This is my hearing aid and I hate it,” from a child.
So it was really nice to be able to capture and break down the idea that a prosthetic is always the right answer for people and to be able to do that in people’s own words so that they are, again, just speaking on their own behalf.
Suse: Clare, a few minutes ago you were talking about how vulnerable a process this is, to open yourself up and to put your text up there to be critiqued. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit more about that sense of vulnerability and how you incorporate that. In fact, how you maybe even draw on that in your work.
Clare: Yes, absolutely. I mean I think what is fascinating to me is the difference we often feel about criticism that is happening in a room where someone is telling you, in person, how something makes you feel, and criticism that is happening in our audiences’ heads that you never access. And for me, making yourself vulnerable and inviting people in the room before you have done something is such an essential tool, because although in that space you may feel very uncomfortable and you may feel vulnerable and it may hurt, at the same time, your work is going to be consumed by the public in ways which you will have no control over, no access to, and surely it would be more devastating to later learn that someone had come into your space and felt unwelcome and felt excluded.
And I would like to pay tribute to people at various points in my career who have got angry with me, and who have told me that things that I have done curatorially have upset them, or have made them feel excluded, or have made them angry. Because their generosity and their courage in sharing that with me has, I hope, helped me to become a better curator. And I think it’s really important to remember when someone is angry with you that that is actually an act of generosity. They’re saying to you, “You could be better.” And it’s not that that criticism hasn’t at times hurt or it’s not that I think that I have reached a point where I’m now fully engaged and that I won’t upset people again.
I’m sure I will, and I’m sure… This is always a learning process, and I’m sure that they’ll be things that I have done in the curation of this gallery which people will critique. But I do think that as a curator, we serve a public. We serve our audiences. It’s a huge privilege to be able to serve our public and to be able to serve our audiences, and we need to be accountable to them. We need to be prepared to listen to them, and we need to be prepared to understand where they’re coming from. And that’s true if their experiences are similar to ours. It’s also true if their experiences are dissimilar. And I think that it’s painful and it’s often uncomfortable, but it’s so necessary, and it’s such a privilege to be able to benefit from it.
Suse: Yeah. I think that’s a really beautiful sentiment, and it’s also something… Someone’s choice to engage with you, particularly over time or to help you try and see how your practice hurts them or harms them or just could be better is, I think, a real act of generosity. As you say, I think it can be an act of love as well to say no, no, this could be better and here’s how I am going to help you make it better. Richard, I’d like to ask… All of these practices we’ve spoken about, how this informs the exhibition. I’m interested how this kind of work and this kind of research informs your teaching.
Richard: Yeah. We have an approach at Leicester which is research-led teaching. So we’ll teach from our research and the aim with that, I guess, is that research is generating new insights. We hope to be working at a kind of leading edge of the field because we’re not simply revisiting existing territory. We take up these collaborations where they hold the potential to generate new insights for the organization that we’re working with, in this case Wellcome, but always for the wider field. And so we draw that distinction as a research center, is that we’re about generating new insights which can then absolutely shape and inform all of our teaching.
It makes for a really exciting world, really, where those can interplay. So give you … we had a few students involved in this project. Some of our PhD students, for example. We’ve taken students to see projects that we’re working on. A lot of our research is very practice-based. It’s working in and with as part of the cultural sector. And so we take our students to see the work that we’re doing, and it means then back in the classroom we debate it. We pull it apart. Probably have some of that same vulnerability that Clare’s described that really sort of showcasing some of the work which we’ve been active in shaping, and then students are there to critique and to kind of rethink what we’re doing.
So that is… It can be difficult, but it’s also a really, really exciting thing to do, and to feed some of that more experimental work, such as the project that underpinned “Being Human,” and use that to foster critical thinking and socially engaged values-led practice, which is all part of the philosophy that underpins our museums through these programs at Leicester.
Suse: Yeah, that’s lovely.
Ed: Yeah, it really is. Okay, I can’t wait any longer. One of the things that I’m dying to hear about from you guys is my favorite object in the gallery: the Ebola suit. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, it’s basically a full-body hazmat suit that has what looks like a Xerox picture of a woman’s face stuck to the front of it. Clare, could you talk a little bit more about the story of that object?
Clare: Absolutely. This was an artist-led project by Mary Beth Heffernan, and she went out to two Ebola treatment centers with a sticker printer and a camera, and she took photographs of healthcare workers who were working in the treatment center and printed them on stickers, so that they could stick them onto their PP equipment, their hazmat suits, and so their patients could see their faces. And it’s an incredibly simple idea, but it was absolutely transformative for the staff and patients. And the thing about a hazmat suit is it’s absolutely terrifying, and if you are being treated just by people wearing hazmat suits, then you suffer… There’s quite good research that shows that you suffer similar psychological effects to someone being kept in solitary confinement.
And by humanizing the person and by putting their face on the suits, it really kind of broke down that barrier between the patient and the carer. And in fact, we’ve got a series of those pictures of carers, which… So the carer that you meet in the gallery will change over the course of the exhibition’s lifetime. And we’ve got their stories about what it was like being a carer in a treatment center. And this is actually one of the objects which I was thinking about when I was thinking about breaking down these barriers and exploring the emotional landscape of health, because a lot of those carers, those health workers, sacrificed a lot. The first person you meet is Rosalie, and she got thrown out of her flat by her landlord when he found out that she was a nurse in a treatment center.
And so I think it’s these kind of surprising stories that help you see something in a slightly different way, and for me that’s also a story which is about connection, and about the fact that we are all, as I say, connected.
Suse: Yeah, that’s really lovely. Clare, you’ve recently left the Wellcome Collection. In fact, as we record this, you are a couple of days into a brand new job. Can you tell us what the new job is and what you’re planning to do next?
Clare: Yeah, so I’ve just been appointed as a curator exhibitions at the Science Museum in London. I emailed, actually, Richard and the different people who’d been part of our consultation process to say don’t worry, I’m going forward, taking your ideas with me. And I’m sure that they will keep me honest and tell me when… if my exhibitions in the future are not living up to the vision that we built together.
Suse: I love it. Clare and Richard, thank you both so much for joining us for this episode. Now, if our listeners want to find out more about your work or they want to get in contact with you, what’s the best way for them to do so? Richard?
Richard: So you can find me pretty easily online on our Research Center website, and we’re really happy to hear from anyone. We’re going to… We always make the outcome of our research projects publicly available. It’s part of the principles of the Research Center that we will make key findings freely available online. So we have some information about the project on the website at the moment, but it’s still ongoing and as you know the gallery’s only just opened. So over the next few weeks, we will be building more information, more links on that website, and we will be looking at sharing the ethical guidelines which are free then for anybody to use if they want to transform the way that they portray and present disability-related objects and stories. And so they’ll be online and available soon.
Suse: That’s brilliant. We will put links to that in the show notes. Absolutely. What about you, Clare? What’s the best way for people to follow what you’re doing?
Clare: You can certainly get in touch with me at the Science Museum. My email there is, I think, firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always happy to talk about my work. I’m also on LinkedIn, and I should also say, actually, that in addition to the work that Richard has done and will be putting on his website, Wellcome is also… has been doing a piece of work around inclusive design guidelines, and that will… they will be releasing publicly, which has some of the kind of really practical learnings about how to design inclusive spaces. So I’m really excited that the work’s being captured in all of these different ways.
Ed: One thing I want to just go back to quickly is the image of the Ebola suit. I think if there’s anything that sums up what “Being Human” does so well, it is that idea of putting a human face on things that we tend to think about very clinically, like the idea of this completely obscuring suit that is designed to, for sound medical reasons, having to have a picture of the nurse’s face taped to the front of it, so that the people she’s dealing with can know that they’re dealing with a human being. Wow, like that just keeps coming back to me again, and again, and again.
Suse: Yeah, it’s really lovely and really powerful. I think the thing that caught my attention, just when the press came out about this exhibition, was every time I noticed a photo, things like the black plinths which we spoke about in the interview, it just… everything stood out to me as things that seemed obvious and surprising at the same time, and-
Ed: Yeah, that’s a good description.
Suse: Yeah. So it’s nice to hear that that impression, even from across the ocean, was not a false impression.
Ed: Indeed. And speaking of oceans, while I was across the ocean traipsing around London, Suse, you were getting up to some interesting things on the other side of this continent. Do you want to talk a little bit about MCN?
Suse: Sure. I know. It was strange not having you at MCN, especially since you and I met in San Diego for the first time.
Ed: I know, I know.
Suse: So I noticed your absence in part because I wanted to look around, looking at the city with you. But yeah, MCN was… This was my eighth MCN, and it’s been really interesting. Full disclaimer, I’ve had huge involvement with MCN over the last several years, and this was the first year I had zero involvement in the conference and in the program, and I found it a real pleasure to be there, in part because of the seriousness of the discussions that were being held. It was… Sometimes I have found… and Ed, you may experience this as well… when we think about the technology part of the museum sector, there can be or there has been habits of looking only at possibilities and not at potential pitfalls of whether it’s new technologies or new ways of doing things, new processes.
And I think the conversations were actually taken really seriously, both possibilities but also the negative implications of the technologies that we’re dealing with, particularly in light of things like surveillance capitalism and in light of things like systemic and algorithmic discrimination. There were really serious conversations happening about what the decisions we’re making in museums… sort of what the implications of those are, and I found it really heartening to have ongoing serious discussions with people who were clearly thinking deeply about these topics.
Ed: Yeah, I mean watching it from afar on Twitter, I wondered if we were actually watching sort of the inevitable maturation of this part of the sector, where the important thing is not this shiny new technology or that platform as much as what are the underlying issues that are going to really change the face of museology writ large.
Suse: Yeah, I think that’s right, and I think actually it’s a beautiful segue into talking about next month’s episode, because next month we’re going to be talking with Mathilde Pavis and Andrea Wallace about their response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy report, which was looking around the restitution of African cultural heritage and associated materials. And Mathilde and Andrea are both looking at intellectual property rights and open access in light of digitization, which I think complicates some of the ideas and the thinking that we’ve had around open access, and really starts to dig into the circumstances under which open access is and is not actually appropriate.
Ed: Yeah, I got to see Andrea and Mathilde speak at the museum’s computer group conference in London, and their call for more nuance and how we think about access was really eye-opening for me, and I really look forward to this conversation.
Suse: Yeah, me too. It’s a thing I’ve been thinking about for a little while, and I’m really excited to talk to some people who have been thinking about it through a different lens from the one I have been, and thinking about it in a way that I think is, as you say, maturing the conversation.
Ed: Yeah, I think we’re going to learn a lot.
Suse: Yeah, I think so too.
Ed: So we’ve popped links to much of what we spoke about today in the show notes, which you can find at museopunks.org, along with transcripts of this and past episodes.
Suse: Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums, and of course you can subscribe any time at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. Catch you next time.