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A Museum Moment to remember...

I was walking through the Bethlem Gallery entrance, at the front of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, when Colin Gale, the Museum of the Mind’s long standing Archivist approached me, (as one the Bethlem Gallery Volunteer Artists). Colin asked if I would like to do a professional photoshoot with the Museum of the Mind staff, as part of the shortlist promotional material for the Museum of the Year Award, 2016. I didn’t have to ask him why, as I imagined the photo shoot would take place in the Museum of the Mind, just upstairs to the Bethlem Gallery, and said "Yes, of course".

My Cohedia’s large canvas was hanging in the Museum at the time, as part of Utopia - the 2016 exhibition to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the book publication - after Colin had seen it at Gallery exhibition and​ approached me in 2015.

Only when chatting with others later did someone say "Wow, they can afford Rankin..." To be honest, I had never heard of Rankin the photographer. So, I looked into it and found out he was a really famous portrait artist to the stars.

I then started to think about what image should we try to portray, as the ​award aims to give recognition to outstanding and imaginative museums who are achieving great things, not just in how they are displaying amazing historical pieces, but also in recognition of the people who work there. For my chance to help showcase the Museum of the Mind, I thought it would be good to draw upon the visual representations of any differences people might perceive there is between the contemporary museum staff and the hospital’s long history and inpatients, all be it as an ex in-patient myself.

I am a head injury survivor having been knocked off my bike back in 1985, and literally had to learn to walk and talk again. When I was admitted, it was for neurological rehabilitation at the South London and the Maudsley Hospital when it had a neurosurgical unit where staff helped me rebuild my life, to which I remain ever grateful to the commitment and care that I received.

I investigated an outfit to wear for the shoot. I often experiment with the idea of different personas, and having been profoundly affected by my head injury, the notion of masks that people wear came to mind. I pulled together a smart black suit, a chain mail spiked hat and a plague doctor Venetian mask, reminiscent of the medieval physicians protective clothing. Also a pearl necklace. After the 25th pearl anniversary of Headway, the brain injury charity, pearls have become a metaphor to use for head injuries.

The day came to attend Rankin’s huge professional photography studio in North London. I took my costume with me not really sure if it would be suitable. We arrived and all other shortlisted museums were there on the same day. There were five shortlisted museums, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, Arnolfini Bristol, York Art Gallery and Jupiter Sculpture Park. We waited our turn in the make-up department before the shoot. In make up I asked for some heavy black eye liner - to accentuate my fear….

Rankin himself came into the make up room to call us in for the shoot and caught me with the spikey chain mail hat on and holding up the long nosed Venetian carnival mask to see what they looked like in the mirror. He asked me what I was doing. I explained my idea of demonstrating the juxtaposition between the Museum of the Mind staff and the Museum’s subject matter and the hundreds of years of madness they look after. He liked the idea, I suppose, as he said ‘OK, I’ll do some solo shots at the end of the shoot’.

Rankin Bethlem Staff Vols image

Initially the group shot itself was the museum staff and I juggling ourselves around to see what standing order we felt most comfortable with, different heights etc… I kept myself mostly at the back of the group, while Rankin gave us some instruction about our positioning. Then he pulled a stool out and placed it in the middle and pulled me out of the back row and sat me on it up front. I am normally quite uncomfortable being photographed as the subject, as most of us are, but I rose to the challenge, and boldly sat there in front of the most famous photographer I’ll ever be sitting in front of, who was pointing a bulky camera at us, asking us to stare into the shiny reflective lens. I caught also, in the corner of my eye, the rest of his studio, full of people all sat around as if they were clueless to what was going on.

Then I remembered having seen the famous stars acting in front of the camera and how they just kept moving, pulling faces to get the best angle and test out poses, so I just started doing that - pulling faces and trying out different poses, engaging with the other Museum staff stood in a row behind me. These actions brought back an idea I’d had of pointing my index fingers to my temples and saying 'It's all in the mind!' with a crazed expression on my face. This was the shot they used, and it got to the top of the Guardian's website.

What was nice about it is that my tom-foolery allowed the others in the group to relax and start to move and pose more naturally. I thought we looked like winners – but unfortunately the V&A won that year – but what a mighty opponent.

While Rankin looked at the shots on a screen, I made sure I had my costume additions in the hope that Rankin hadn’t forgotten his idea for the solo shots. But luckily he hadn’t. I was so happy. I knew I didn’t have to do much as the props said it all. When we’d finished, I cheekily asked if I could get a copy of the shots, and Rankin said to e-mail his PA. Since then Rankin has given his permission for me to use the solo portrait shot he had selected for me.

While we had been waiting for make up the BBC’s Arts Night producer and I had been talking about Glasgow. He also took my name and contact details. He got in touch later and asked me if I would do a tour with last year’s winner of the prize. This was to be a filmed walk around of the Museum of the Mind with Maria Balshaw from the previous year’s Manchester’s Museum winners, who has since become that Director at the Tate London.

Written by Xavier White, Glass Artist and Bethlem Gallery Volunteer