Museums, Society, Inequality

By Richard Sandell | Go to book overview

13

Museums and the health of the community

Jocelyn Dodd

In memory of my precious mother, Mary Dodd 1926-99.

Factors which make for health are concerned with a sense of personal and social identity, human worth, communication, participation in the making of political decisions, celebration and responsibility, so the language of science alone is insufficient to describe health: the languages of story, myth and poetry also disclose its truth.

(Wilson 1975:59)

Do museums and galleries really have a part to play in the health of the community? What impact might they have and by what means can this be achieved?

Our Bodies Ourselves, a temporary exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery in September 1994, featured bold, explicit, uncompromising black and white photographs presenting stark images of the reality of radical breast surgery. The photographs were self-images by the artist Jo Spence, exploring her personal journey as breast cancer shaped her life. The photographs present the effects of lumpectomies and full mastectomy whilst the artist’s everyday face stares out at the viewer. The photographs pull no punches - not clinical, not abstract - as they present a sense of the physical reality of this disease; a reality which statistically one in three women will in some way experience as they are diagnosed with cancer. At the time of the exhibition I found the images haunting. They appeared to hold such power to present an insight into something so widely experienced, but the reality of which was so often hidden, understated, superficially made good by prosthesis and reconstructive surgery.

An art gallery seems an unlikely place to embark on a journey of understanding of a medical condition, but it was to the images of Jo Spence that I returned, years later, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My experience of her illness was not of some abstract disease, though much of her time was spent in hospital having surgery, radiotherapy treatment, hopeful check-ups and debilitating chemotherapy. Her ill health was not simply a medical condition,

-182-

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