Core course week 5: Museums of medicine and war

25 Nov
Project Façade, Paddy Hartley

Project Façade, Paddy Hartley

Territory closer to home (indeed I wasn’t expecting to see screenshots from my own website in the presentation) with Suzannah Biernoff in the fifth week of the core course, who presented two contrasting exhibits about war and medicine in the context of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.

Specifically, Suzannah focused on the relationship between art and war; its power to ameliorate the horror of combat, and the changing assumptions about what it is appropriate, or nor appropriate, to look at. The key questions she put before us were:

  • When we encounter medical images, what kind of cultural and imaginative work do they perform?
  • What do these images mean in the context of medical history?
  • Are there ethical issues raised these images redeployment as art, education or entertainment

The first exhibition under consideration was Wellcome Collection’s War and Medicine. As the public face of the Wellcome Trust, Wellcome Collection is not merely an art gallery but also apparently carries some responsibility for publicising the Trust’s work and engaging the public with science. However, War and Medicine carried ‘no straightforward curatorial agenda or message’. Instead, it addressed the dilemmas of medicine in a time of war through a combination of testimony and the juxtaposition of art with scientific and medical objects.

Testimony in medicine is a departure from the enlightenment tradition of the analysis and display of disembodied specimens (here Suzannah namechecked Karen Ingham’s Narrative Remains – unless I simply interpolated that in my notes – as an imaginative work returning subjectivity to the scientific specimen) and medical museums in general are moving away from the standpoint of clinical objectivity.

The exhibition also complicated the idea of progress through bloodshed and exposed the paradox of improving our own health in order to inflict physical damage on our enemies (an issue also touched on by Roger Cooter in his article ‘War and Modern Medicine’ in the Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine). Suzannah suggested though, that the exhibition might have also limited the impact war’s horror through its (possibly vorticist-influenced) design, being perhaps ‘elegantly upsetting’.

In its juxtaposition of art and artifact, Medicine and War begged the question of what art brings to the context. Sexing up, or deeper engagement? Is it to do with Heaney’s ‘Redress of Poetry’, a spiritual balance restored by art, or more to do with mutual illumination, art and science (in the form of medical artifact) throwing each other into productive relief (rather than art merely illustrating or highlighting scientific progress)?

The second exhibition Suzannah presented was the National Army Museum’s Faces of Battle, based on the Gillies Archive, a private surgeon’s own archive of his facial reconstruction work on WWI servicemen. Their status as a non-public archive (therefore not governed by the UK government’s 100-year disclosure rules) is the kind of anomaly that dictates the availability of medical material like this. The exhibition was part of the larger (and also Wellcome Trust-funded) Project Façade, a project by artist Paddy Hartley which deals with the Gillies archive.

Faces of Battle had a clearer curatorial narrative than War and Medicine, making the connections between heroic sacrifice and medical progress clear through the work of Gillies. The exhibition had a different feel to Medicine and War, encouraging emotion rather than reflection or the changing of minds; its location in an army museum rather than a central London gallery also conditioned to some extent the responses generated by it.

Suzannah suggested a diversion of curatorial aims at work. Where Faces of Battle was raw and polarised feelings (some couldn’t stand to be with the images of disfigured soldiers for long), War and Medicine encouraged critical reflection. Both, however, represent two prevalent trends in contemporary medical exhibitions: a turn toward biography and the juxtaposition of art with medicine as a spur to contemplation.

The issue of the limits of the use of medical images, however, emerges in some uses of the Gillies archive that are less tasteful. The revelation that ‘baddie’ characters in the game Bioshock based on recognisable photos of individual servicemen from the Gillies Archive makes you pause to wonder whether indeed these images ought to be protected in some way, and leads us back ultimately to Sontag’s question of what purpose there is in looking at the images of others’ pain.


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