Bodies of Protest: The Museum and its Discontents, Helen Rees Leahy Brown Bag, 15 May 2013

While there is a growing body of evidence that visiting museums can contribute to our physical and psychological well-being, there is an equally rich history of their adverse affects on our corporeal and mental equilibrium. This presentation explored the ways in which visitors’ bodies have rebuked the norms of comportment inside the museum, due to the effects of fatigue, confusion, nausea and frustration.

Helen is Director of the Centre for Museology at the University of Manchester. Prior to coming to Manchester, Helen worked as a curator and museum director for over 12 years, and has organised numerous exhibitions of fine art and design. Helen has published on topics relating to practices of individual and institutional collecting, in both historical and contemporary contexts, including issues of patronage, display and interpretation. Her project on "Museum Bodies" addresses the visitor's embodied encounter with the museum or exhibition and the processes whereby a continually changing repertoire of normative 'techniques of the body' in the public art gallery has been produced and acquired, ranging from regimes of regulation and instruction to licensed sociality and consumption. Her book “Museum Bodies: the Politics and Practices of Viewing and Visiting” is published by Ashgate,  2012. She is currently Curatorial Consultant to The Gaskells’ House (opens summer 2014) and is working on a new project on exhibition historiography.

This session was something of an antidote to the current focus and political requirement to think of museums as places of wellbeing, or, as Helen described, it was the Yin to the Happy Museum project's Yang. Nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, falling over, tripping up, being bewildered, being exhausted, getting lost and myriad ways in which museums and galleries can make us actually feel quite ill and unhappy were all discussed with a real sense of excitement and as experiences which we could all relate to.  In fact anecdotes about our own experiences of bodily discontent in museums were copious.  

Putting this into historical context, Helen referred to Paul Valery's writings of 1923.  His 'Le Probleme des Musees' recognises this physical exhaustion in galleries, this confusion over expected behaviours in a space that is part drawing room, part temple, and which requires a bizarre and involuntary change in gait and even in speech: there is simply too much to take in, a sensory overload which has real corporeal and visceral effects on our bodies.  Indeed there is even a psychological syndrome, recognised by Stendhal ('La Syndrome di Stendhal') also known as 'Jerusalem', or 'Florence syndrome' - that overwhelming crisis that in seeking to see, observe, experience every single thing within a place or a museum, we may have palpitations, be exhausted, suffer physically and mentally.

And just as museums have negative effects on our bodies, so too do we sometimes negatively affect museum objects in a highly demonstrative and physical way.  There are several recorded instances of acts of violence to museum objects, both petty and more serious.  For example Mary Richardson's slashing of the Rokeby Venus, and other suffragette demonstrations (which interestingly are often ignored by institutions).  In fact could it be because of the strict rules of the museum, the 'do not touch' posters and regulations, that such vandalism takes place?  Telling people to do something often has the opposite effect, leading to an 'impish vision of havoc' (a quotation from Ruth Hoberman's 2011 Introduction to 'Museum Trouble: Edwardian Fiction and the Emergence of Modernism').  I love this phrase.  And I love to be an imp and do all those things that I am not supposed to do: sneak up to sculptures and touch them, disobey 'no photography' signs surreptitiously, peer through doors with 'no entry' signs.  I wonder how many of us do?

But why is it that galleries and museums are so uncomfortable with telling these stories of their own institutions?  Do they not make them seem more human, less mysterious?  Is there an institutional embarrassment that such things can happen, that security can be breached, or that such damage can occur in a place which is meant to care for and conserve?  Why will the National Gallery not permit publication for example of the photograph of the slashed Velazquez painting?  Should a more concerted effort be made to tell these stories, to be transparent and acknowledge that museums can be discomforting: they assault us, and we assault them?  Should we begin to factor this into exhibition design and space making - not just seats for weary visitors and shorter exhibitions as strategies for visitor wellbeing, or inviting artists to critique the institution, but what about managed opportunities for visitors to be angry, for venting frustration, for being discontent, for acknowledging bodies of protest?


Popular Posts