On Monday night, Jocelyn Dodd (Director of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries) and I were lucky enough to attend the press night of Beauty and the Beast at the Young Vic – a superb new piece of theatre by Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz that combines brilliantly funny (and sometimes outrageous) performances with provocative comments on the ways in which we perceive and respond to physical differences and disability.
The performance (along with the great reviews the next day – see for example, The Guardian & artsdesk.Com) reminded us just why we had approached Mat – some two years ago – to work with us on a new action research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, that uses medical museums and collections to shape a new artwork that will be used to stimulate and inform public debate around disability.
The project, entitled ‘Stories of a Different Kind’ comes to fruition next month when Mat’s new show – created out of a process of collaboration between all partners – premieres in London and Leicester. This collaborative process – bringing together artist, researchers, and practitioners with diverse forms of expertise – has been central to the project. We have been delighted to collaborate with SHAPE, the Royal College of Physicians, the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons and the Science Museum and to have benefited from advice and insights from Katherine Ott, Curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
The show – Cabinet of Curiosities: How disability was kept in a box – addresses some serious themes, exploring the part that medicine (and medical museums) have played in shaping past and present attitudes towards disability. Importantly though, these themes are explored through a blend of comedy, cabaret and drama that promises – like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – to be entertaining and provocative in equal parts.
Significantly for us as researchers, the project experiments with new ways of working with and using museum collections and expertise to engage audiences in debate and to tackle contemporary social issues – in this case prejudice and discrimination related to disability – that are far from straightforward.
We hope to learn from this experiment and use that learning to shape further collaborative projects between museums, disability activists and artists – watch this space! In the meantime, you can find more information about our project on the RCMG website – and the forthcoming performances at the Hunterian Museum, Science Museum, Royal College of Physicians and Embrace Arts, Leicester, here.