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CoolTan Arts Stays Up Lates at the Science Museum

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The end of April saw the launch of a book and DVD celebrating CoolTan Arts’ recent project with the Science Museum. From Summer 2013 until January 2014, volunteers from CoolTan Arts led the Largactyl Shuffle around the Science Museum LATES, covering topics such as representations of madness and the relationship between treatment and experiment in scientific psychology. We previously blogged about the ‘ Food for Thought ’ walk last August.

Through their intervention into the Science Museum (and visits to the museum at Bethlem), CoolTan volunteers often questioned the dominant narratives in exhibition displays. In particular, the group asked: “What is normal, and who decides what is normal?” At their final walk, around the Mind Maps psychology exhibition, the guides questioned whether progress had been made in many areas of mental health treatment by taking visitors around the exhibition backwards. Their intention was to emphasise the challenges caused by an Enlightenment separation of science and philosophy by discussing a variety of other ways of understanding the brain and nervous system, including the spiritual elements of meditation or non-western philosophies.

It’s often easy for a public museum to assume that they represent everyone (i.e. “the public”), but is this really the case? One of the things CoolTan volunteers noticed was that exhibition texts at the Science Museum often used the pronoun “we” to appeal to visitors. But this led to many assumptions as to what visitors would share and understand, potentially alienating anyone who didn’t agree with the dominant Science Museum narrative. A final part of the project saw CoolTan inviting visitors to add their own responses to Science Museum exhibitions, as shown in the image below.

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'Picking Holes' by Bekki Perriman (2013), displayed as part of the 'Mind Maps' Largactyl Shuffle

The walks formed part of CoolTan Arts’ series of walking tours – The Largactyl Shuffle – which reclaim mental distress from the perspective of the service user. The name emphasises the marked, unpleasant side effects of certain psychiatric medications (in particular, the shuffling gait experienced by long-term users of Chlorpromazine – largely known by the brand name, Largactil – one of the earliest anti-psychotic medications). CoolTan run regular local history walks which aim to enhance wellbeing through creativity and activity. You can find a full list of these on their website.