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Curatorial Conversations XII

During last November’s panel discussion at UCL’s Petrie Museum, Chair Niall Boyce (Senior Editor of The Lancet) remarked on the potential for voyeurism in the display of images like those taken by Francis Galton at Bethlem in the 1880s. Similar concerns emerge frequently in discussion of psychiatric museums (and often medical museums in general): as Dolly MacKinnon and Catharine Coleborne recently put it, such collections are confronted with the problem that “a voyeuristic proportion of the public simply want to gaze at the mad.”1

But what is actually meant by “voyeurism” in such circumstances, and can any portion of visitors be so easily labelled and dismissed? Medical museums have long operated in relation to similar fears. When Henry Wellcome opened his Historical Medical Museum in Wigmore Street in 1913, visitors were carefully limited to “protect” the public: they thus mostly consisted of medical professionals and other educated, middle class (and usually male) visitors. This example clearly indicates the power relations inherent in claims of voyeurism (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century often called “morbid curiosity”). Voyeurism was deemed to be a response exhibited by less educated individuals: a claim that offers worrying reflections on contemporary practice. The assumptions underlying such concerns may well lead to a “them” and “us” attitude. Archive and museum staff and academics thus assume that their own educational background ensures that they exhibit a “correct” response to psychiatric material (ignoring the fact that the potential for so-called voyeurism might equally exist within their own ranks), an idea used to support their privileged access, while denying it to those with a lower level of formal education.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, doctors frequently discussed the propriety of medical texts falling into the hands of lay readers: a fear particularly related to books on sexual matters. Reviews of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis – the huge expansion of which, mostly from readers’ letters, between the first edition in 1886 and the twelfth in 1903 made it abundantly clear that it was widely accessible – frequently suggested that the very existence of texts on sexual pathology generated and perpetuated such behaviour, by pandering to the unhealthy “morbid curiosity” of the public.