‘The Ethics of Display: exhibiting vulnerable bodies’
At the Centre for the History of Medicine, the University of Warwick, 21 March 2016
When I signed up for this symposium I was still thinking about the tricky questions thrown up by Lucy Lyons’ ‘Drawing Parallels’ workshop at UCL last year. The experience of that day spent trying to draw (or in my case trying really to see/look at) foetal specimens had been working its way through my system, so when I spotted this opportunity at Warwick to think more about such things, I was keen to be part of it. A big thank you to Tania Woloshyn for inviting me to read poems from ‘Self-portrait without Breasts’ and show Laura’s photographs at the end of what was a provocative and fascinating day. And further thanks to both Tania and Sheilagh Holmes for their meticulous organization and warm welcome.
In a sense, all bodies are vulnerable – vulnerability being as much about the person and consciousness doing the looking as it is about the body being looked at – surely the intention of the one looking is what makes a body vulnerable or not. But this symposium was considering the public exhibition of bodies or images of bodies that are acknowledged as being particularly vulnerable – the disfigured, the diseased, the disabled, the dead, the young, the disappeared, the nude, the old, and all those whose permission to be scrutinized publicly has not been sought and/or has not been given.
In an era of intense interest in bodies and in images of bodies – how are we to think responsibly about the display of particularly vulnerable beings?
This was a well-balanced day with a fine array of speakers, including Suzannah Biernoff on exhibiting the damaged faces and bodies of war-damaged individuals and what to think about the co-opting of such images for other purposes such as merchandising and online game characters (as in Bioshock for example); Mark Carnall on interpreting the complex and pressing issues around the display of all animal bodies (including the human); Mary Hunter on how hospital art is developing and how to assess the value of such art to the vulnerable (patients) in medical settings; Natasha McEnroe, Tania Woloshyn and Mieneke te Hennepe discussing how medical museums should curate and revision collections of film and photography that were originally created as medical records; Gemma Angel, Sarah Morton and Kathryn Smith talking about the sacredness of human remains, in memory as well as in their physicality, and debating what kinds of ethical arguments should prevail around showing museum collections such as those at the Hunterian.
There were of course many themes that played out across the various sessions throughout the day – different approaches to images of the living and the dead, differences between bodies themselves and pictures of them, between the democratic imperative to make bodies accessible to every gaze yet to present such bodies in ways that respect them. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a conference or symposium where every single speaker was so passionately engaged with their subject and was able to articulate that engagement so fully. What a riveting day!
My own reading from ‘Self-portrait without Breasts’ (and showing of Laura’s photos) came at the end of the day. I found myself talking briefly in my preamble about one aspect of my own experience. My teenage body felt especially vulnerable – my mother’s breast cancer had demonstrated to me just how fragile was the adult female body I was growing into (I was 16 when my mother first developed the aggressive breast cancer that we later learned was a genetic variety). But since I went ahead with risk-reducing double mastectomy in 2006, I’ve actually felt less vulnerable than ever before. I feel whole now, safer or ‘less at risk’ – even though others might see my body as no longer being whole. Perhaps this is what has allowed me to feel able to display in public my own vulnerable, naked and scarred body through poems and photographic images.
Questions thrown up by Suzannah Biernoff (in the context of her talk about images of WWI facial injuries) keep ringing in my head. Who has the ‘right’ to look at [images of] vulnerable bodies? Is it only those who can help, is it those who can learn from the looking? And by implication, are the others who look simply voyeurs? In our world of Facebook selfies, cosmetic surgery and obsessive interest in the body beautiful (for which often read the body uniform) I think we all need to learn from looking at vulnerable bodies. Everyone can help by understanding the fragility and the value of every body, and by reading the stories told by bodies and bodily remains. What matters is the attitude and respect of the person or people looking – we can be empowered to look at vulnerable bodies in ways that are insightful, sensitive and intelligent.
The speakers at Monday’s symposium, ethically and visually sophisticated in their approach and utterly dedicated in their work, are the educators and gatekeepers of our gaze. They are doing an enormously important job in guiding and informing how we look at all vulnerable bodies and therefore how we think about them – and by extension, how we think about what it means to inhabit a body, what it can mean to live.
About the symposium:
‘The Ethics of Display: exhibiting vulnerable bodies’ was held at the Centre for the History of Medicine, the University of Warwick on Monday March 21st 2016
This symposium brings together curators, art and medical historians, and medical humanities scholars to examine the ethics and challenges of displaying difficult, sensitive and vulnerable material, especially the bodies of patients. In doing so it seeks to create an open and earnest discussion about ‘appropriate’ exhibition practices, curatorial choices, and viewer responses. Amongst an exciting, international and interdisciplinary group of speakers, topics will include the exhibition of photographs of naked babies under ultraviolet lamps, the disfigured faces of WWI soldiers, and distressed asylum patients, as well as the exhibition of human remains. We will question what leads to particular material being exhibited, versus what is left hidden, and who makes those choices and why. What policies, practices and precedents are in place to inform these choices, and how are they subjectively or objectively applied to specific exhibitions?
This one-day event will be held on campus at the University of Warwick, hosted by the Centre for the History of Medicine (CHM) and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Propelled by the recent Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Kiss of Light’ exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum (FNM), which featured photographs of exposed, irradiated child patients, the symposium stems from the research of Dr Tania Woloshyn and the collaboration between the CHM and the FNM.