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Curatorial Conversations V

During a recent consultation held in conjunction with our proposed museum relocation project, staff and consultants have spoken to a wide range of people, including current and former mental health service users, hospital staff, carers and local interest groups, about their ideas for the new museum. One session with a peer-led ‘Hearing Voices’ group was particularly inspirational, indicating just how creative a ‘museum of the mind’ might be, as well as the value that such a museum might hold for some service users: a chance to increase understanding of their condition by sharing their experiences.

The discussion indicated many of the ways in which perceptions of museums have altered in the past decades. The group (many of whom often visited art galleries) preferred interactive exhibits within a clean, modern, welcoming building to traditional display cases and period buildings. Sound and video installations were regarded as vital, and the best means of portraying ‘hearing voices’ to those who had never had such experiences was discussed.

One of the most challenging issues a ‘hearing voices’ display would have to confront is how to effectively portray an ‘average’ experience, at the same time making it clear that the experience of every mental health service user is unique. Perhaps an interactive exhibit could confront this issue? Shared experiences might be viewed through a large-screen video installation, for example, in which the viewer follows the path of a camera around a locked in-patient ward on a journey through the hospital from locked door to meds hatch. A lack of dialogue would suggest the common nature of such a journey. Yet to add a sense of the unique nature of patient experiences, visitors might remove headphones from the model of a head in order to listen to a recording of ‘voices’. Taking up headphones would suggest to visitors that they are sharing the experience of one of many individuals, among whom even similar symptoms may vary considerably.