Today I’m launching my DAO blog, which will mostly feature information and updates about my ongoing disabled- and Deaf-themed art projects and collaborations. I also like to write about other artists who create, interrogate and interrupt narratives around disability, Deaf culture, (a)gender, class, (a)sexuality, colonialism and race – and my experiences as a queer crip trying to navigate the arts scene in Scotland and elsewhere. As a precursor to reviewing Deaf Men Dancing for DAO as part of Exceptional and Extraordinary in Scotland, I decided to visit Surgeons’ Hall Museums to review its collections for this blog.
Content Note: detail of upsetting ableist terms, description of upsetting displays of disabled bodies, and description of racial and gender insensitivity.
Exceptional and Extraordinary: Unruly Bodies and Minds in the Medical Museum is an exciting project that commissioned four artists (Julie McNamara, Francesca Martinez, David Hevey, and Mark Smith of Deaf Men Dancing) to engage with the collections of eight UK medical museums, and ‘examine our attitudes towards difference and aim to stimulate debate around the implications of a society that values some lives more than others’.
I caught the only Scottish date, at Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh, which featured Hevey’s filmic contribution The Fight For Life and Deaf Men Dancing’s Let Us Tell You a Story. My review of the brilliant Deaf Men Dancing can be found here, and there are also DAO reviews of the other artists. The project is one worth following.
Since I was invited to be on a panel after the screening and performance, I thought to check out the Surgeons’ Hall collection first – and try to imagine myself engaging in such a challenging commission.
As is the case with my visits to many museums, what I found was upsetting. From the shrunken heads of indigenous people from South America to a trans person presented as a punch line in a ‘surprise upon death’ narrative, I found everywhere an historical tale that does indeed ‘value some lives more than others.’
Notable are two full skeletons of women who lived and died on the streets at the turn of the 19th century, who had osteomalacia (adult rickets). There are also skeletal examples of people with scoliosis. Everywhere in the collection are the kinds of class, gender, racial and consent issues the very existence of most museums raises. How did people end up here, and did they give their permission?
In the ‘Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery’ section on the top floor, words like ‘deformity’ and ‘abnormal’ prevail. There are skulls on display not entirely unlike in a freak show, labeled ‘hydrocephalus’, ‘microcephaly’ and ‘Downs Syndrome’. Most upsetting, the person’s skull labelled ‘Downs’ also still retains a label of ‘mongoloid idiot’. In a museum that has only recently become more (but not yet fully) accessible to disabled people, the only stories of disability are of fixing us or studying us for our ‘deformities’ and implied insufficiencies.
Unfortunately, when I and others mentioned feelings of discomfort and upset during the panel, museum director Christopher Henry did not seem to want to engage with ways to improve the collection (or at least provide context for the public). He responded that they didn’t know where the bodies were from, that they hadn’t had other negative feedback, and that there were many stakeholders to please. Surprisingly, the discussion I had expected based on the project’s description did not happen at Surgeons’ Hall. I got the impression of a focus on abstract ideas of Society and The Medical Establishment as causes of the mistreatment of disabled people, as opposed to an examination or questioning of the very space we were in – and its obvious continued connection to harmful stereotypes, language, and medical models of disability.
Luckily there are four artists who engaged with the subject matter in complex and intense ways. And in my case, luckily there was Deaf Men Dancing. Read about them here.