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Posts tagged ‘disability’

Trust and the taste of flesh: the ethics of Martin O’Brien’s zombie performance

Naked man on a chain leans towards laughing woman as if to bit her

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

The first three articles from the Trust Me, I’m an Artist project (funded by Creative Europe) have just been published online, which gives me an excuse to reflect back on the subject of all three texts – Martin O’Brien’s Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, which Arts Catalyst commissioned earlier this year, curated by Jareh Das.

The series Trust Me I’m an Artist seeks to address the isolation of artistic activities from the regulatory frameworks that both contain science, medicine and biotechnology but also provide guidance and clarity for activities in those fields. The conventions and understanding that scientists bring to their work concerning safe or ethical practices are formed during their training and research within institutional settings over years. Artists who engage with the methods, materials and technologies of science are generally unlikely to share these norms and rules because of their different training, knowledge and culture.

A pilot series of Trust Me I’m an Artist events, which included Neal White’s The Void at Arts Catalyst, placed artists in front of an ‘ethics committees’ to present their proposals and allow the committee to discuss them, which could then approve or reject the proposal, or – in the case of White’s The Void – decide that their remit did not enable them to reach a decision. In the Creative Europe funded series, the format is more flexible, enabling broader questions to be raised around issues of risk and audience consent, the interplay of fiction and factual accuracy in relation to science, the responsibility of the curator (to artist and audience), and the different institutional frameworks and cultures of art and science, as discussed in an introductory text to the project by artist Anna Dumitriu, biomedical ethicist Professor Bobbie Farsides and curator Annick Bureaud.

Main in straightjacket and rubber mask smears green paint with his head while people look on

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

Martin O’Brien’s performance emerged, as does much of his work, from his experience of living with cystic fibrosis, the impact of the medical interventions he receives and the reactions from others towards his illness and symptoms. In this new durational live art work, he turned his attention to the fear of contamination associated with the sick body, playing with depictions of the zombie in popular culture and highlighting recent public anxiety around the risk of infection, which O’Brien discusses beautifully in his text Flesh-Eaters: Notes Towards a Zombie Methodology

The three-hour durational performance took place at the White Building, London. The staging was reminiscent of an emergency medical tent or quarantine centre. Clear plastic was stretched over a wooden frame creating a room within a room. As people arrived, they were briefed on the nature of the performances, and invited to put on protective wear for their clothes. Upon entering the performance area, one met small groups of people huddled in the corners of the space. All watched intently as the artist, wearing a straitjacket and mask, chained to a pole in the centre of the space, struggled on his hands and knees to dip his head in a bowl of green paint and then arduously paint a spiral around the enclosure. As the length of chain increased, the spiral enlarged moving the artist further from the centre and closer to the audience and eventually forcing them to move away to avoid being painted. Over the course of the next four hours, Martin undertook a series of actions which explored interaction and changing power relationships between performer and audience, focusing on the idea of contagion, all the time chained to the pole and semi-naked, often circling the room, making people move around to avoid him and the moving chain. These actions included coughing up mucus and blowing bubbles from the mucus in people’s faces, piercing his lips with a needle drawing blood, and biting members of the audience (with their complicity, as it was easy to move away) and inviting the audience to bite him in return. Over the course of the performance, the audience’s reactions moved from discomfort, disgust, pain, concern and awkwardness to laughter, participation and relaxation, and back again.

Chained man bites laughing woman

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

The Arts Catalyst team conducted exit interviews with audience members. Many of the responses centred on the act of watching and participating in the performance, and commented on the shift of mood during the performance, from seriousness and unease to laughter, empathy and connection, even a sense of camaraderie. Several spoke of their feeling of the artist’s generosity in sharing and enduring pain or hardship.

The performance was following by a discussion event, which featured a specially convened ethics committee of Professor Karen Lowton, Dr Gianna Bouchard, and Lois Keidan, director of the Live Art Development Agency, chaired by Professor Bobbie Farsides. Issues discussed included audience consent, particularly around the biting, the power of the performer in this situation and how this related to the participation of the audience.

As a commissioner of the work, as well as obvious health and safety issues that had to be addressed before the performance – from paint fumes in an enclosed space to a whirling chain, to the risks of the artist letting blood and potentially being in contact with audience members (1) – there were many other issues of concern for me in terms of both the artist and the audience’s safety and well-being. While I felt a lot of trust in the artist as a highly experienced performer, he was placing himself in a position of both vulnerability and power during the performance. Given the actions, in particular the act of biting, I was concerned about the impact on and reaction from audience members. In her text, the curator of the work Jareh Das reflects on the ethics of extreme live art, addressing the limits of ‘watchability’, ‘bearability’ and what ‘informed consent’ means in terms of audience members and how much information can and should be given to them in advance.

In the past, I have shied away from commissioning live art performances in which the artist hurts or causes injury to themselves (piercing, etc), not from any sense of disapproval or lack of interest in the artform, but because of the ethical dilemma – for me – of commissioning (i.e. paying) someone to commit these acts on themselves. I have also learned that, in the act of performance, the frameworks and restrictions that you have put in place may not work, or may sometimes be transgressed, and then the question of whether or not to intervene.

With the long tradition of live art, these are not new ethical considerations and dilemmas and they have been extensively discussed in that arena. However, it is useful to situate what are often represented as ‘new’ ethical dilemmas of emerging art practices (i.e. those engaging with science and medicine) within art historical contexts that have long addressed complex ethical and social issues and learn from them.

Trust Me I’m an Artist is an ongoing series of projects aimed at investigating the new ethical issues arising from art and science collaboration and consider the roles and responsibilities of the artists, scientists and institutions. involved. Institutional partners are: Waag Society Amsterdam, Arts Catalyst London, Capsula Helsinki, Ciant Prague, Kapelica Gallery Ljubliana, Leonardo Olats Paris and Medical Museion Copenhagen.


  1. We were careful to alert people to this aspect of the performance, so that those with compromised immune systems or who had cystic fibrosis did not come into the performance, however there remained an element of risk.


Man paints spiral of green paint with his head in enclosed performance space

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

International Summit on Human Gene Editing: missing voices, divergent views … What is the role of the artist?

Film still, Gattaca

Film still, Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol

A hugely significant meeting in Washington DC last week barely made it onto the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Yet its subject could hardly be more important or more contentious. Scientists have recently stumbled on a cheap, straightforward and precise way to edit DNA in cells. Should it be used to create genetically modified children?

Scientists have been tinkering with genomes for decades, but it could be said that genetic engineering has been far more thoroughly explored in film, fiction and art than in real life, where the tools have been limited. Now there’s a technology that brings much closer the possibility of genetically modifying human embryos, to cure genetic diseases or, as David Baltimore the biologist and Nobel prize winner who chaired the summit noted: “to alter human heredity”.

Emmanuelle Charpentier

Emmanuelle Charpentier, Max Plank Institute, who jointly discovered the CRISPR-Cas9 system (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The International Summit on Human Gene Editing, which took place over three days, was organised by the US National Academies of Science and Medicine, the Royal Society in London and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and attended by over 500 participants from more than 20 countries. It was sparked by the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 system (explained in this short video) by researchers Jennifer Doudna and Emannuelle Charpentier. CRISPR-Cas9 has made it possible to edit the DNA of any species with incredible precision, relatively cheaply and efficiently. Laboratories are already using the technology to modify genetic material in cells and breed laboratory animals for research related to disease. But Chinese researchers recently used CRISPR–Cas9 to modify a gene in human embryos, triggering this gathering of scientists, doctors, legal experts, ethicists, industrialists and other stakeholders (and a sprinkling of artists) to discuss whether international guidelines or a moratorium on research is advisable.

Eugenics and Health Exhibit

Setting a context, Daniel Kevles gave a shocking and fascinating history of eugenics in the early part of the 20th century, which included theories that traits such as ‘pauperism’, ‘mental retardation’ and ‘criminality’ were passed down in families. He noted that, in the States at that time, the drive for eugenics had a racial component: at the time, there was a social fear of “the menace of immigrants” from southern Europe. Kelves drew some obvious parallels to the contemporary situation, noting potential dangers from the history of eugenics.

There were a number of scientific panels about the potential of this technology for overcoming genetic diseases, and a great deal of discussion around ethics and international governance, particularly focusing on human germline genome modification (genetic changes that can be passed onto future generations). The breadth and diversity of views on governance was represented, at one extreme, by philosopher and bioethicist John Harris (whose position can be deduced from the title of his recent book ‘Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People’) who argued for a gung-ho carte blanche on all human germline gene editing research, and at the other, several calls for a moratorium (and even a total ban) on editing the human germline genome, either because of the moral status of the embryo, or – more commonly – grave concerns about ethical and safety implications, by speakers including the Editor of Nature, Phillip Campbell.

Stelarc, artist who explores bodily enhancements with robotic and bio- technologies

Social science scholars and ethicists raised concerns that altering human genomes could create inequality and discrimination, and sociologist Ruha Benjamin pointed out that the line between genetic therapy and genetic enhancement was not clear, and that, quoting disability studies scholar Tom Shakespeare, “although fixing a genetic variation that causes a rare disease might seem an obvious act of beneficence, such intervention assumes that there is robust consensus about the boundaries between normal variation and disability”, which – she noted – there is not. Just as the diversity of disciplines demanded seeing things from other perspectives, the diversity of cultures also led to challenges, with Chinese representatives struggling with concepts such as the rights of embryos and those deaf people who consider deafness a culture not a disability.

Social scientist Charis Thompson noted several important missing voices and debates in the summit, including health disparities, commercialisation, cross-border care and medical tourism, interests of other species, and citizen use of these technologies such as bioart and biohacking. Missing voices, she said, included disability perspectives, race perspectives, and gender and queer bioethics. Thompson’s view was that there should be a temporary ban on research to allow these missing conversations to take place.

David Baltimore, biologist and Nobel Laureate, presents the final summary at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing

David Baltimore, biologist and Nobel Laureate, presents the final summary at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing

In the final Q&A, the irrepressible bioartist Adam Zaretsky made it to the audience microphone. I couldn’t quite follow his point (it had to do with humans already being altered under the aegis of health) , but he made enough impact to nudge David Baltimore’s final summation.

At the end of the day, Baltimore read a statement written by the organising committee, that endorsed basic research into human gene editing, whilst noting the many important and worrying issues with germline editing (genetic alterations in gametes or embryos that would be passed on as part of the human gene pool). However, it fell short of calling for a moratorium or ban, merely stating that clinical use would be “irresponsible” until safety issues were resolved and there was a “broad societal consensus”. It called for an ongoing international forum.

As he read this last part of the statement, Baltimore inserted one word that was not in the published announcement: “We therefore call upon the national academies that co-hosted the summit … to take the lead in creating an ongoing international forum to discuss potential clinical uses of gene editing; help inform decisions by national policymakers and others; formulate recommendations and guidelines; and promote coordination among nations. The forum should be inclusive among nations and engage a wide range of perspectives and expertise – including from biomedical scientists, social scientists, ethicists, health care providers, patients and their families, people with disabilities, policymakers, regulators, research funders, faith leaders, public interest advocates, industry representatives, ARTISTS [emphasised and seemingly adlibbed, to audience laughter], and members of the general public.”

If the notion of artists engaging with these issues was taken lightly, paradoxically there was also some alarm at the idea of bioartists and biohackers accessing CRISPR-Cas9 technology, a seeming contradiction which I have come across time and again in the attitude of experts towards artists who are engaging with advanced, highly regulated or emerging technologies (whether nuclear, space, medical or genetic): the dismissal of art as a frivolous practice set alongside fear of its transgressive power and public reach.

The summit showed the complexity and depth of voices and conversations that need to be brought into this vital societal debate, and there is clearly a role for the skills of the critically engaged artist.

And although this summit had a specific focus on human gene editing, it is important that possible nonhuman applications of CRISPR-Cas9 should not be overlooked either by critical artists or by regulators. In a world in which humankind’s actions are destroying the biodiversity of the planet, should we commodify and alter what we have left? Should we use this technology for de-extinction of species we have lost? How does this technology change our responsibilities towards other species as well as the human race?

Questions of how artists and cultural institutions can best engage with biotechnology and biomedicine are being explored in the ongoing programme Trust Me, I’m an Artist, in which the author’s organisation The Arts Catalyst is a partner, together with Waag Society, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Ciant, Kapelica Gallery, Medical Museion, Capsula and Leonardo/Olats.

Relevant blog posts:
Do Not Lick: MadLab’s DIYBio residency at Arts Catalyst
Proposal: an arts/science ethics advisory panel
From biohacking to biotech porn
The role of the arts in biopolicy-making

Also read:
Synthesis: synthetic biology in art & society
Critical Art Ensemble’s biotechnology critiques projects
Science Gallery’s Human+ exhibition, exploring humanity’s technologically enhanced future
When stem cell science and performance art collide: artist Stelarc

Genome editing with CRISPR-Cas9
Video of highlights of the Synthesis: art and synthetic biology workshop


Bionic people: enhancement, bioethics and the politics of disability

Woman as half-cheetah half-human with prosthetics legs

Aimee Mullens in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER 3 (2002). Superhuman exhibition.

Two current exhibitions, a workshop we recently organised at DaDaFest, and the ongoing controversy around “bladerunner” Oscar Pistorius’ inclusion in the Olympics have got me thinking about developments in human enhancement technologies and the impact on disability politics.

The athletic success of double-amputee runner Oscar Pistorius has propelled this discourse into the mainstream. Some say the blades he runs on give him an unfair advantage, allowing him to push off the ground more efficiently than a normal human ankle. This discussion of whether Pistorius, until now regarded as a “disabled” athlete, is in fact an “enhanced” athlete is an extraordinary development, and represents a major milestone in the development of prosthetics technology. Some writers, such as bioethicist Andy Miah, have pointed out that it has an even greater significance:  “… the rise of technological enhancements means that prosthetics can overtake the capacities of biological body parts and what we consider today to be optimal may, tomorrow, seem inefficient.” It is easily conceivable that different prosthetics and enhancements may give other Paralympics athletes advantages to the extent that they begin to produce faster, further, stronger, more accurate performances than athletes in the non-enhanced Olympics.

Athlete with prosthetic 'blade' legs

Oscar Pistorius, Olympic athlete

Some of the historical background to this type of speculation is explored in the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Superhuman’ exhibition, which opened in London recently and runs to October. It suggests that “scientific developments point to a future where cognitive enhancers and medical nanorobots will be widespread as we seek to augment our beauty, intelligence and health”, and does so through displaying medical, scientific and cultural artefacts which humans have used to make themselves better from early times, from an Egyptian prosthetic toe and a nose prosthetic for a 19th century syphilis victim, to modern cosmetic surgery, i-Limbs and futuristic promises of nano- and biotechnology.

Yet the vision of a bionic future jars with the reminder, in another part of the exhibition, of the artificial limbs used to “normalise” – but certainly not to enhance – thalidomide children. While there may be a gradual trend to more functional prosthetics adapted for the individual, in reality many disabled people’s experience of prosthetics is still uncomfortable, limiting and frustrating.

The notion of enhancement, of making ‘superhumans’ of disabled people, presents problems for what has been the prevailing discourse in disability politics in the English-speaking west, which centres on the social versus medical models of disability. In this discourse, there is a “medical model of disability” which sees the disabled person as a problem, to be adapted, cured or shut away. Against this, the “social model of disability” considers disablement to be created by the way that society and the physical environment have been structured, and to have little to do with impairment itself. Using this model, the ‘cure’ to the problem of disability lies in the restructuring of society. This position became increasingly rigid in the UK during the 80s and 90s, with corresponding suspicion – indeed hostility – directed at health and medical science professionals, who might wish to cure or prevent those impairments that are part of a person’s identity.

In 2006, sociologist and disability activist Tom Shakespeare suggested in his book ‘Disability Rights and Wrongs’ that the disabled people’s movement needed to move on from this polarised position. He proposed an alternative account of disability, which takes into account the interplay of individual and contextual factors. In other words, he argues that people are disabled by society and by their bodies, and therefore that it is important both to prevent impairment and to support the rights of disabled people.

A table with thousands of pills

Pharmacopoeia, Cradle to Grave II (2003). Niet Normaal.

An exhibition currently showing at Bluecoats Gallery, Liverpool, as part of DaDaFest, makes an interesting contribution to this more nuanced approach to disability, exploring themes of technological enhancement, conformity, and normality. ‘Niet Normaal’ is a new version of an international exhibition that explores the questions ‘What is normal?’ and ‘Who decides?’ through the work of contemporary artists. The Liverpool version, curated by Ine Gevers and Garry Robson, recognises that technology is generating new opportunities for people of all sorts, shapes and sizes, but sets this against the striving to become ever more uniform, ever more ‘perfect’.

Javier Tellez’s film Caligari und der Schlafwandler (Caligari and the Sleepwalker) is a delightful homage to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), a film that has been interpreted as a commentary on the German people’s somnambulist response to the rise of the Nazis. In Tellez’s version, psychiatric patients play the characters. The story of the doctor’s “discovery” of a sleepwalking alien is beautifully produced and raises questions about what we perceive as mental illness and how we communicate our complex internal worlds. Don’t we all hear voices some of the time?

Film still (black and white) of a man holding a blackboard on which some German words are chalked, the translation is "You have to sign this form"

Javier Tellez, Caligari und der Schlafwandler (2008). Niet Normaal.

In the next gallery, a vast glass-covered table holds a collection of 14,000 pills. Pharmacopoeia’s Cradle to Grave II is the outcome of a study into the use of medicines by the average Dutch person, but is bordered by photographs and objects from daily lives. If these are the “normal” relatively healthy people, what does this vast intake of powerful medication imply for how we understand our own wellness?

Imogen Stidworthy’s video installation focuses on the speech therapy of photographer Edward Woodward, who lost his voice in an accident. The strain of his production of words is felt through vibrations on a bench. The fact that the words he is struggling to pronounce are those in the title of the piece, I Hate, suggests his anger at his debilitating situation.

As someone with a fair amount of titanium in her body, I was entertained by Floris Kaayk’s video Metalosis Maligna, a mockumentary about a disease that affects patients with metal-based implants, eating away the human tissue as the metal takes over the body. The CGT work is impressive and there are some very comic moments. It’s also showing in the Superhuman exhibition.

A man in a hospital bed, his flesh being replaced by metai

Floris Kaayk, Metalosis Maligna (2006). Niet Normaal & Superhuman.

I was at DaDaFest for the fourth project of an Arts Catalyst programme strand, Specimens to Superhumans, a collaborative project with Shape, a disability-led arts organisation. Specimens to Superhumans aims to provide a series of creative spaces for disabled artists to engage with contemporary issues around biomedical science and ethics. The activities have included artists’ commissions, panel discussions and practical creative workshops.

At DaDaFest, we organised a 2-day film-making workshop for disabled artists and film-makers, led by writer/director John Williams. The intent of the workshop was to create short films that imaginatively addressed themes of disability, bioethics and prosthetics. John Williams’ films combine live action, animation and visual effects, engagingly dealing with highly sensitive subjects. His award-winning film Robots – The Animated Docu-Soap (2000) tells the story of three redundant robots who, having acquired disabilities or mental illness, attempt to reassert meaning to their lives, while in Paraphernalia (2009) a young boy gets annoyed with the little robot that follows him everywhere, but the robot is more than just a toy and turns out to be the object on which his life depends.

The two short films produced by the participants in less than two days – Side Effects and The Experiment – will be showcased at DaDaFest Film Shorts on 21 August 2012, at FACT, starting at 5pm. We also hope to put them online – so watch this space.

John Williams, Robots – The Animated Docu-Soap (2000)

John Williams, Paraphernalia (2009)

Human specimens: a labyrinth of morality, science and law

Aaron Williamson, Specimen Mirror, performance, with the skeleton of Charles Byrne, Hunterian Museum, 2011

I was interested to see this debate come up in the media just before Christmas:

Royal College of Surgeons rejects call to bury skeleton of ‘Irish giant’

The authors of a paper in the British Medical Journal called for the skeletal remains of a man called Charles Byrne, the so-called ‘Irish Giant’, on display in the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum in London, to be buried at sea. Byrne, who lived in the 18th century and was 7′ 7″ tall, was an object of curiosity for the  famous surgeon and anatomist Sir John Hunter. Byrne became so afraid that doctors would dissect his corpse after his death that he left specific instructions for his body to be buried at sea. But when he died, aged just 22, Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party and stole the body. Byrne’s skeleton has been on public display ever since. The BMJ paper’s authors claimed that all possible medical insights from the skeleton have now been gleaned and Byrne’s remains should be buried according to his wishes, but the Hunterian Museum rejected this call, saying that it considers that the educational and research benefits merit retaining Byrne’s remains.

This story has a particular interest for me because, in May last year, we co-organised an event with the disability arts group Shape at the Hunterian Museum. Titled ‘Labyrinth of Living Exhibits’, the event addressed the issue of human specimens in such collections.

The Hunterian is little known, central yet tucked away upstairs at the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. There are thousands of specimens on display, the remains of the once vast collection made by Hunter. Many still carry his classification as either ‘morbid’ or ‘normal’. The unsettling collection contains many human parts, including whole skeletons and human foetuses. The focus of Hunter’s collecting was clearly biased towards ‘the different’ – extreme cases of growth, “abnormality” and disease.

In the Labyrinth of Living Exhibits, artist Aaron Williamson curated four simultaneous, specially commissioned, site-specific performances, which infiltrated and responded to the collection, performed simultaneously by disabled artists Aaron Williamson, Sinéad O’Donnell, Brian Catling and Katherine Araniello.

Katherine Araniello, BiPAP 1 (Living Experiment), photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

In Araniello’s work, she took on the guise of a guinea pig escaped from a laboratory in a dark, slow and subversive performance. Brian Catling’s performance Out of Its Depth, in fact, began at the Hunterian in 1979 in response to a “specimen” which the Museum housed until recently: the body of a one-eyed child (now locked away out of public view). Wearing a latex, one-eyed mask, Catling walked through the collections or stood by a pillar, peering through his fingers and making faces, mirroring the audience’s curiosity. In Williamson’s own performance, Specimen Mirror, he distorted his own facial features by pressing them against the glass cases of the collections, in response to the flattened suspended specimens.

Brian Catling, Out Of Its Depth, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

A lively panel discussion followed the performances. Aaron Williamson opened the discussion by describing the impetus for each of the performances, explaining his curatorial interest in the responses of artists who are “set apart from the norm” through illness or medical prognosis.

The museum’s director, Sam Alberti, then gave an honest exposition of the Hunterian’s collections of “disabled people as objects”. He explained that the museum was set up in the 18th and developed in the 19th century, and that in those centuries museums were in the business of “classifying” difference. Human remains that came into museums were classified against the “norm”, which at that time, he said, was male, heterosexual, white and European. Anyone else was pathologised. The Hunterian Museum, Alberti explained, is not a medical museum, but a medical history museum, and what it displays are the legacies of prejudice. Alberti said that he felt very passionately that it was important to understand and show to the public the representation and construction of difference, and that the display had to be seen through this historical lens. Araniello disagreed with Alberti and said she didn’t feel that it was helpful at all to have such images and specimens on display for the public, and that it did more harm than good in continuing to objectify and pathologies people.

You can watch video recordings of the full panel discussion here.

Panel discussion of Labyrinth Living Exhibits, photo Royal College of Surgeons, 2011

So I found it fascinating to see the debate about Charles Byrne’s remains raised again in the media, quoting Alberti saying “The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne’s remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.”

It is a complex debate between science, education and morality, complicated by a man’s dying wishes and a nasty case of corpse robbing.

But there is also a wider context for this debate in the claims on human remains in all other museum collections. Since the late 1970s, human remains in museum collections have been subject to claims and controversies, such as demands for repatriation by indigenous groups who suffered under colonization. These requests have often been contested by the museums and by scientists who research the material and consider it unique evidence, echoing the Hunterian’s arguments over Byrne’s remains.

This is a topic that has interested me for several years. At one point, I was involved in some very early stage discussions with another London museum about an exhibition on such a theme. Whilst the exhibition never developed, there has been much progress in this area over the last decade. Increasingly, many museums are removing human remains from their collections, sometimes returning them to their countries of origin, often for reburial. One sticking point was legislation that prevented most national museums from removing items from their collections, but this changed in 2004 (under Section 47 of the Human Tissue Act), and nine national museums now have the power to deaccession human remains under 1000 years old held in their collections. In 2011, for example, the Natural History Museum returned 19 ancestral remains to the Torres Strait Island community. There is an interesting video about the return on the museum’s site.

But in a book published last year, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections, the sociologist Tiffany Jenkins argued that museums were being “over-sensitive” to demands for greater “respect” for human remains, and removing specimens from public display that were valued by museum-goers.

It is an interesting and ongoing debate. Do you have examples of other art projects or exhibitions that have explored these issues? I’d be interested to hear.


Ju Gosling, Design4Life, 2008

Ju Gosling’s exhibition ‘Abnormal’ is at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) at Mill Hill in North London until the end of the month. Ju has been artist-in-residence at the NIMR, looking at how scientists regard disability and “normality” and whether there is a ‘scientific model of disability’ as distinct from the much-discussed ‘medical model‘. Her residency has included a series of conversations with the scientists Malcolm Logan and Evelien Gevers – recorded on the project’s website. Ju concludes that there is a ‘Scientific Model of Disability’ held within society – disability is abnormal: science will ‘cure’ it – but she notes that this model is neither scientific nor reflects the views of individual scientists. She argues that it is, in fact, extremely unhelpful to scientists, placing unnecessary pressures on them and hampering their work. Whilst some of the artworks in this exhibition have unequivocal messages and the wall-texts are highly informational, the conversations that the artist has had with the scientists, and the context in which she has been working, has led to a series of works that come across as thoughtful and enquiring, rather than polemical.

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