Tag Archive for: Exceptional and Extraordinary: Unruly bodies and minds in the medical museum

The Lancet: Exceptional and extraordinary artists

JUN 04 2016

When he attended a school for deaf children in the 1970s Mark Smith had to use sign language in secret to communicate with his friends. At the time, he had no idea why sign language was taboo. But thanks to a pioneering project that has brought artists together with medical museums in the  UK, he discovered that an 1880 international congress in Milan decreed that sign language should be banned in schools to force deaf children to integrate.

The conference is one of the forgotten tales from history that dancer and choreographer Smith, founder of Deaf Men Dancing, has interpreted in a fusion of dance, theatre, and sign language as part of the Exceptional & Extraordinary project. The initiative invited four artists—Smith plus playwright Julie McNamara, film-maker David Hevey, and comedian Francesca Martinez— to explore the collections of eight museums in the UK to create art which challenges negative ideas of disability.

Hevey’s film Fight for Life examines how people with disabilities today are affected by biomedical decisions and austerity cuts, while Martinez’s performance Wobbly Manifesto challenges audiences to accept diversity. The works will tour the partner museums this month and also be shown to students at Leicester Medical School.

Richard Sandell runs the Exceptional & Extraordinary project with Jocelyn Dodd at the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries. He argues that “medical museums have traditionally shown disability as a deficiency that needs fixing which clashes with the contemporary view of disability pride which has grown out of the disability rights movement. They have been operating in the shadow of the freak show.” Dodd explains that their project “aims to stimulate debate—among doctors as well as the public—about medicalised perspectives of disability using humour and live art”.

Smith has found the project fascinating: “I have discovered so much about the history of deafness.” He was shocked at the number of soldiers made deaf by cannon and guns in World War 1. “I feel it is my responsibility to retell the stories for the next generation”, he says. He was intrigued to find   artifacts too, such as Queen Victoria’s silver ear trumpet in the Thackray Medical Museum, in Leeds, and cumbersome box hearing aids like the one he wore clamped to his chest as a child. The work he has created, Let Us Tell You A Story, incorporates replica hearing aids and trumpets to tell five  stories inspired by the museum collections.

Julie McNamara, who describes herself as “a mad woman made good”, has also reclaimed forgotten history for her play Hold the Hearse! “I have always begged, stolen, and borrowed stories from museums”, she says. When she met the curators of the museums involved she asked each of them two questions: what would they crawl on hands and knees to save in a fi re and what item in the hidden collections most disturbed them. The replies fed her time-slip tale that meshes stories from the Hunterian Museum, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, and the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability.

In her play, McNamara takes the role of Maudlin Mary who meets Walter Riddle, played by Eden Webber, in the house of 18th-century surgeon John Hunter. Mary wants to reclaim the bones of her child which have been preserved in Hunter’s collection. The story has a personal resonance for McNamara because an older sister was born with anencephaly in 1958. At the time doctors would not let her mother see the baby, who died, describing her as “a monstrous birth”. Having herself spent years “in and out” of psychiatric hospitals, McNamara says: “I hope people, especially doctors, will come away from the play with questions about current attitudes towards mental health but I also hope they will have fun.” She adds: “I write with a bawdy humour.”

Wendy Moore


Dates and information about Hold the Hearse!

This article first appeared on 4 June 2016 in The Lancet www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)30694-8/abstract


The Big Issue North Blog: Julie McNamara, Hold the Hearse!

JUN 06 2016

Three weeks into rehearsal and I’ve spent most of my time pinned to a specimen jar in one of the zaniest, most challenging stories I’ve presented. Hold the Hearse is my provocative response to investigations into the public and hidden collections of partner museums in Exceptional and Extraordinary.

Following Mat Fraser’s award-winning commission Cabinet of Curiosities, which that toured UK museums in 2015, Exceptional & Extraordinary invited four artists – dance company Deaf Men Dancing led by choreographer Mark Smith, film-maker David Hevey, comedian Francesca Martinez, and me – I’m an artist and playwright – to explore behind the scenes of eight of the UK’s most renowned museums with medical collections – including the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds. Initiated and led by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, Exceptional and Extraordinary is a collaborative project with experts in medical history, disability and museums.

I was 11 when I first visited a museum. I was disruptive in class and couldn’t sit still. So I was given a sketchpad and pencils, and packed off to Lady Lever Art Gallery over the road. I spent the afternoon mesmerized by a statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and the embodiment of compassion. I was just entranced. Beneath the statue it simply said: “She who sits and waits.” So I did.

My work continues to draw upon lost voices in museum collections and archives clamouring to be heard. Crossings was a story about slavery that weaves three women’s voices across three time zones and continents. It began with a story I found on the walls of Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum and then rolled with further snippets from Te PaPa and Petone Settlers Museums in New Zealand.

I suspect Hold the Hearse might ruffle some feathers. What I have to say is not easy to hear. There are huge dilemmas at the heart of museum culture that need addressing if disabled and deaf people are to become central voices.


Pullen’s giant: imposing power

As a survivor of the psychiatric system I know something about being silenced. This shapes the work I make and the work I’m drawn to. Of all the objects in the collections, I fell in love with Pullen’s Giant. Pullen was described as an idiot savant – a label I detest. He speaks to me as a quiet man with extraordinary ideas. His Giant is an imposing and militaristic embodiment of power that he could climb inside and manipulate from within. A little like me with this show.

In making the show, I chose two stories from the archives at Bethlem and Langdon Down Museums to develop the two characters in the piece. Mad Mary (lunatic, 40, cause of insanity: grief at loss of a child) and Walter Riddle (feeble minded, 17, mental defect) represent the two groups of people I feel are deeply stigmatised in society today because of the ongoing impact of previous biomedical research. Ideas that emerged in the anatomy labs and operating theatres in the 1800s have had a significant and negative impact on the perception of deaf and disabled people to this very day.

At the outset, I asked everybody showing me round their collections two questions – “What would you crawl on your hands and knees through fire to save?” and perhaps more loaded: “What inside your collection most disturbs you, or you’re most afraid of disturbing the public with?” I was often moved by people’s responses, and their intensely personal connections with the archived materials they protect. I was also baffled in equal measure by the things that people found disturbing. Most of the responses to my questions are woven into this show.

We arrive at any collection of artefacts with our own subjective political filters. If I were curating an exhibition from the collections I’ve witnessed, I’d present the same contents driven from the perspective of exclusion. I’d want the awkward questions out in the open. Whose stories are left out? Why are the majority of human skeletons used in teaching museums, small adult females allegedly from the Indian subcontinent? Why are the first images created of patients undergoing trepanning young, black and male? Does life come cheap in some areas of the world? Why do we value some lives more than others?

Presenting disabled and deaf people as spectacle for derision, ridicule or pity is still prevalent. Objectifying medical presentations where unruly minds and bodies were paraded before physicians and surgeons in their teaching theatres were no better than freak shows. All helped to educate the public about their place in the hierarchy of classes, races, civilisations, and nations that was so crucial to the 19th-century world view.

In 2016 we are fast returning to these toxic ideas with Disability and Capability Assessment Centres managed by Atos or Capita to weed out the useless eaters and demonise disabled people.

Dates and information about Hold the Hearse! 

This blog first appeared on 6 June 2016 online  www.bigissuenorth.com/2016/06/blog-julie-mcnamara-hold-the-hearse/18996


For immediate release: 23 March 2016


Unique film, dance, performance and comedy commissions draw on museum collections to explore our problematic attitudes towards difference.

Since humans first appeared on earth no two have ever been the same. Yet somewhere along the way, certain bodies and minds came to be highly valued whilst others became viewed as problematic: as deviant and unruly, deficient and requiring adjustment towards a perceived idealised norm.

Following Mat Fraser’s astonishing and award-winning commission Cabinet of Curiosities that toured UK museums in 2015, Exceptional & Extraordinary invites four artists to explore behind the scenes of eight of the UK’s most renowned medical museums. In collaboration with experts in medical history, disability and museums – they are currently producing a series of thought provoking new commissions that examine our attitudes towards difference and aim to stimulate debate around the implications of a society that values some lives more than others. The subsequent ticketed performances and film will tour throughout June 2016 to all eight partner museums, with different groupings of the commissions so that every performance is unique to each venue and with many of the performances supported by after-show discussion panels with invited experts as well as opportunities to view and handle some of the objects that have inspired the artists.

Initiated and led by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, Exceptional and Extraordinary is a collaborative project involving 4 artists – film-maker David Hevey, comedian Francesca Martinez, dance company Deaf Men Dancing led by Mark Smith, artist and playwright Julie McNamara – and 8 museums (the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS); the Science Museum; the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds; the Royal London Hospital Museum and Archives; Surgeons’ Hall Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; Museum of the Mind; Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability). Project advisors are Tony Heaton, SHAPE and Katherine Ott, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

More about the artists and the dates

More about Julie McNamara’s performance Hold the Hearse!

Funded through a Large Arts Award by the Wellcome Trust and a Grants for the Arts award from Arts Council England, Exceptional & Extraordinary is an ambitious project that aims to engage visitors to all the partner museums, professionals in the field of biomedicine and the broader public in a reassessment of widely held assumptions surrounding physical and mental difference, disability and contemporary (often negative and discriminatory) attitudes towards disabled people.

The commissions will offer new ways of seeing that will be used to question and stimulate public, biomedical professional and media debate around the social, cultural and ethical implications of medicalised ways of understanding difference that pervade biomedical professional practice as well as shape broader public and societal attitudes towards disability and disabled people.

‘Museums hold enormous potential to stimulate debate about important contemporary issues and, at a time when disabled people are unfairly bearing the brunt of government cuts, we believe it is important to be exploring ways of harnessing that power to ask challenging questions’. Professor Richard Sandell, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester.

‘We are delighted to be working with such an exciting mix of artists and experts across the fields of museums, disability and biomedicine. The unique process behind the project reflects RCMG’s established commitment to collaborative practice as a powerful means to address pressing social concerns.’ Jocelyn Dodd, Director of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester
For further information, a range of images and interviews please contact Catharine Braithwaite on 07947 644 110 or cat@we-r-lethal.com
Notes to editors:

Tour dates
7 June Julie McNamara Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability, Normansfield
8 June Julie McNamara and David Hevey Royal College of Surgeons of England, London
13 June Julie McNamara and David Hevey Royal College of Physicians of England, London
14 June Deaf Men Dancing Thackray Medical Museum at Yorkshire Dance, Leeds
15 June David Hevey and Deaf Men Dancing Surgeons’ Hall Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
17 June Julie McNamara Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Beckenham
18 June Francesca Martinez Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds
20 June Francesca Martinez and Deaf Men Dancing Royal College of Physicians, London
21 June Julie McNamara and David Hevey Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds
22 June Francesca Martinez and Deaf Men Dancing Royal College of Surgeons of England, London
23 June David Hevey Royal London Hospital Museum & Archive, London
29 June Francesca Martinez and Deaf Men Dancing The Science Museum, London


This project brings together organisations with track records in innovative public engagement and an exciting blend of expertise in medical collections, the history of medicine, disability history and representations of disability within public history settings, museum ethics and public engagement with scientific and social issues. The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS); the Science Museum; the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), Thackray Museum, Leeds; Royal London Hospital Museum and Archives; Surgeons’ Hall at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; Museum of the Mind; Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability all hold extraordinary collections and bring rich expertise in medical history, community health, history of disability as well as a commitment to pursuing new ways of engaging audiences in debating biomedical science through the arts.

SHAPE is the disability-led arts organisation working to improve access to culture for disabled people. Visit Shape Arts

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. They support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine.

Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. It support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better.