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Curatorial Conversations II

With this series we hope to stimulate an ongoing discussion with as wide a range of our stakeholders as possible. Another of our ‘conversation partners’ is Coleborne and MacKinnon’s recently published Exhibiting Madness in Museums, which, as we mentioned in our previous post, raises a number of insistent questions about exhibitions on psychiatric history. Coleborne and MacKinnon’s work is most relevant to our concerns when it addresses the issue of how psychiatric collections may best be exhibited.

The limited number of psychiatric collections that have been open to the public have met a number of standard responses: large percentages of the viewing public decide to stay away from exhibitions that focus on mental health history; a voyeuristic proportion of the public simply want to gaze at the mad; and finally, former patients, family members, friends and staff, as well as some members of the general public, are interested in attempting to gain a clearer understanding of the experiences of patients and practitioners in psychiatric institutions.

The authors go on to touch upon the issue (hotly contested among museum professionals) of whether there may be some things that are simply unexhibitable.

Sensitive and compassionate exhibitions about specific institutions have found critical acclaim from sections of the viewing public… However, these successes have been complicated and far outweighed by the large proportion of the general public who voraciously consume the private, fee-entry, worldwide travelling collections, such as Gunther von Hagens’ plastination body part shows, as well as his live autopsy shows, some of which have made use of former psychiatric patients’ bodies.1

To be continued.