This is unfortunately a retrospective review, as I just caught the closing days of Bone at the Florence Nightingale Museum on my recent trip to London. But given the always-strange scenario of blogging about objects that most readers will likely never encounter in the flesh (or at least, in close proximity to their glass cases), I thought I’d share a few thoughts.
The room holding Bone was a welcome oasis amidst the frenetic traffic of Waterloo, covered in blackboard paint that blurred the visual shorelines of walls, floor, and ceiling, creating a strangely expansive, quiet space out of a small room usually packed with school children. Bone is the first in a series of temporary exhibitions instigated by director Natasha McEnroe, utilizing the museum’s education room during the summer holidays.
An interesting addition to the recent trend for object-focused, culturally situated, event-rich temporary exhibitions on medical themes, Bone consisted of a modular stack of glass boxes full of objects relating in some way to the use, treatment, or understanding of bone. Instruments and toys mingled with anatomical and pathological specimens; whalebone goggles looked across at a poem to help medical students remember the litany of the skeleton; fertilizer, gelatine, and glaze sat squat and quotidian; an X-ray of Freud’s head glared down on artistic appropriations of bone and its visceral resonances.
Grand designs, small containers
Themes like Bone – similar examples might include The Heart, Dirt, and Sleeping and Dreaming at Wellcome Collection, or Colour of Medicine at the Canada Science and Technology Museum – seem very concrete, pointing to a tangible, human scale object, material, or phenomena. But when taken as a starting point for a multifaceted exploration of the theme, they can be scarily limitless in scope.
The curatorial team handled this, and the challenge of the small space, with a simple, elegant structural logic (see youtube video from Mobile Studio Architects here). The exhibition consisted of one large display case, composed of glass boxes each containing one object or small set of items. Each box got one text, regimented into a little flip-book guide (see left) and absent from the cases, so that the visitor had to match the number on the case to the relevant numbered leaf. The objects related to each other mostly implicitly, along lines bisected by the visitor’s curious eyes, rather than in lengthy textual comparisons.
This made for an exhibition rich with puzzle-solving pleasure, with embodied echoes in the bending, peering, and leaning necessary to get the best view of each compartment. Separating the objects from each other, and the texts from the objects, certainly encourages you to see the things first. But I found myself oscillating between following this implicit injunction and instead browsing the guidebook first, then looking for the objects corresponding to the texts that most excited me.
I’m intrigued to know how other visitors experienced this – there’s a danger that you feel overly ‘handled’, and I suspect that the power of the design would have been sufficient to encourage a focus on the objects without this structural disciplining of the (inevitably undisciplined) viewer.
Making events, building exhibitions
Perhaps my favourite element of the exhibition (setting aside the objects themselves, where I’d need at least a top ten) was a series of ‘Live Respondent’ boxes, all numbered 16.
Each Box 16 contained an artifact from one of the biweekly residencies that took place during the exhibition. Rather than short, ticketed events, people “with a professional interest in bone” were invited to spend a day in the exhibition, responding to the space and its inhabitants, both animate and inanimate. Artists made traditional carvings and ran a taxidermy workshop, a nurse plaster-casted gleeful children, and a dancer, forensic archeologist, and biomedical researchers took their turn.
But I couldn’t find any textual record of these residencies. I wanted to know what had happened, something about each practitioner, maybe even how people had reacted to often potentially emotive encounters. I think this was in part because the events had happened so recently – the information was tangibly close, and thus felt omitted. And this feeling was then exacerbated by the number matching system, which created an expectation that there would be a little nugget of info for each object.
I know how time-consuming it is to record events – making a short film takes at least several days, quickly assembling pictures and words requires a deft touch and intimacy with the event. But for innovative co-curation experiments like this, I think it’s worth thinking through how it can be practically achieved. The Studiolab team here at Museion will be trying to work this out ourselves as our biohacking events develop.
More broadly, smudging the boundaries between event and exhibition raises tricky questions about the representation of time, and about how the differing forms of authorship involved in events and exhibitions can be indicated. From a science communication perspective, it also draws attention to the quite different forms of ‘public engagement’ they aim at, in terms of depth, interaction, and audience numbers. There’s a veritable explosion of science events at the moment, and some interesting analysis of their relation to various educational, democratic, and promotional agendas. But I think events that are more intimately tied to exhibitions or displays need some theoretical attention of their own, however strangely jointed the resulting skeleton may appear.
A few days after visiting the Florence Nightingale Museum I was sorting through some old papers from school, and found the leaflet below – my manga-inspired offering to the history of medicine coursework. It seems rather appropriate given my (now expanded) knowledge of Florence’s feistiness… Note her famous injunction: “It may seem a strange principle to enunciate as the very first requirement in a Hospital that it should do the sick no harm”. Death is fair game though.