Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Comment books and penises at the Hunterian

I can't believe it's taken me three years to get around to visiting the fantastic Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, which is only about 15 minutes away from the Institute.

For those of you who aren't familiar, the museum very much takes a cabinet-of-curiosities approach and contains hundreds and hundreds of specimen jars containing animal and human parts, including a wide array of diseased innards, human skulls, and perhaps most shockingly, several preserved foetuses. Not only is it fascinating in content, but the Hunterian also offers a commentary of sorts about the changing nature of museums as well.

I visited the temporary exhibition, which is about the anatomy of an athlete to tie in with London 2012, and aside from an interesting model of a paralympian wearing running blades, I found the actual exhibition pretty unremarkable. There was a comments book, which I had a flick through. The people who had written in the books were largely responding to the permanent displays and were fairly unanimously positive, they also seemed to be mainly written by children. One particular comment stood out to me, initially because it made me laugh:

I couldn't get a great picture (there was a tour group right behind me and there was no photography allowed so it was a bit stealthy/rushed), but it says 'the penises were disgusting' followed by what appears to be a name crossed out. Initially I didn't think much about this, but on my way home it got me thinking. While I agreed they were fairly disgusting, they were no more so than the specimens of diseased teeth, or tumorous organs or the vast hernia collection. The penises were also far from the most alarming exhibits, the foetuses and the child's face with smallpox were far more controversial and potentially distressing.

So, perhaps I'm reading too deeply into this, but who is likely to have singled out the penises as the most offensive exhibits? I'd like to surmise that it was a stuffy and prudish conservative with nothing better to do, but it's far more likely to have been penned by a child, probably on a school trip, and- let's face it- probably a boy.

I'm really interested in the issues around displaying the nude in art galleries especially where it concerns children, I find it strange that children aren't shielded from classical nude paintings and statues but that parents (and Daily Mail readers) are funny when it comes to their child being confronted with contemporary nudes. I'd never thought about the ethics and potential controversies of showing actual physical genitalia in specimen jars without including age warning signs. I suppose it's a similar sort of thing with the classical paintings. When vaginas, breasts and penises are displayed as scientific, labelled specimens they become just artefacts, detached from anything human, detached from anything sexual. But if a photographic exhibition including nudity were shown, the gallery or museum would have to be extremely careful about informing parents of young children about the content in advance.

Personally, (and I'm sure some will be horrified at the thought of this), I think children should be exposed to naked imagery in art and in science from a young age. I imagine the main cause of the comment above was shame. From a young age, being sheltered from anything remotely sexual or to do with sexuality makes us feel that the nude body, and genitalia are something to be hidden, or to be ashamed of. It's common sense that this promotion of embarrassment and shame is destructive, and only serves to perpetuate the intensely poor self-body-images that almost everyone these days seems to have. If a young boy, out of curiosity, spends a long time staring at a row of jars containing penises, even if they are detached from a human and severely deformed, perhaps he feels the only way he can explain this is with disgust, because God forbid someone should find this interesting, like I did. And even I to some extent felt a bit of shame looking at them, even though I didn't spend any longer looking at them than I did at the foetuses or the disemboweled lizards or the cat with rickets, but because I too am a product of the cloud of shame that hangs over our sexual organs. It's something that really desperately needs to be challenged.

Aside from my ponderings about the nature of a (potentially meaningless) comment in a comment book, I thought I'd recommend comment books as a great source for research to Museum Studies students, they're a great way of seeing what the people who matter think works/doesn't work. And, as above, a throwaway comment can make you laugh, and make you think more widely around an issue.

Yesterday I visited the Superhuman exhibition at the Wellcome, it seemed smaller than their usual exhibitions, but aside from the brevity it is, as always, well worth checking out, though it ends in mid October, so get there soon. One thing I found funny; there were a group of disinterested looking school students there, aged maybe 16 or so, and I overheard several of them saying things such as 'Have you chosen what you're going to research?', 'I can't find anything I want to research', 'Stop messing about, I need to find something to research!' and so on, which struck me as the worst possible way to get a school group to engage with an exhibition: 'go in there and find something to research', I imagine that laziness will have come from the teachers, rather than the museum staff. Another hint for Museum Studies students- eavesdrop on other museum visitors, nosiness is an endlessly fascinating resource- use it wisely!

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