Sunday, 31 July 2016

An Open Letter to the Henry Moore Insitute

On Saturday I visited the Henry Moore Institute gallery in Leeds. I was drawn to its current feature exhibit The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics. Being both disabled and a former student of palaeopathology, as well as an art lover, an exhibition that promised that it "explores how sculpture and medical science have augmented the analogue human figure..." was of course an appealing prospect.

It was inevitable that the subject matter would be challenging, and may at times have struck a personal chord but that is, to be honest what I was looking for. The pieces themselves - a mixture of sculpture, lithographs, installation and extant examples of prosthetics were very interesting. They fulfilled the brief of examining how prosthesis and the disabilities that require them alter are perception of the human form.
However, the way it was presented was very voyeuristic. Some of the pieces were clearly to do with the relationship between people and their prosthetics but there was no discussion of this, no deeper exploration of the pieces on display. Instead it came across as some sort of modern minimalist freakshow. Curious contraptions and inventive creations presented on a stark white background inside the modernist cube of the building. The feeling was distinctly "othering" to anybody with a disability, and especially of those with prosthesis. Disability put on display to ogle at and the attention and praise reserved for the "clever" designs and interpretations of accessibility and prosthetics.

Additionally, the responses of other people in the gallery were at times repellent. I heard words like "heartwarming", "provocative" and of course "inspirational". This was a clear response to how the material was presented, divorced from the reality of life with those prosthesis and the real and lived experiences of disabilities. The exhibition gave no guidance for deeper consideration or empathy and instead directed visitors toward cool detachment and marvelling at "those poor cripples". 

To top it off, the accessibility of the gallery was poor. Though the gallery has a well signposted wheelchair friendly entrance, it is off to one side and doesn't take you to the main foyer - a quirk of many designs that physically separates disabled people from the able bodied population. Since I can use steps I chose the more direct main entrance and found that the automatic swing doors were faulty, stopping only half way so I had to shove them open with my hip.
Inner doors were not automatic and were also heavy, requiring very careful shoving, propping and manoeuvring to get through. One was so heavy, I actually knocked and asked somebody in the room to let me in!

There was one bench in the main gallery, off to one side perfectly positioned to view the room at a distance without being able to get close to the art. Another bench in a small sub-gallery. Nowhere for a disabled person, in this gallery of the disabled, to rest easily while they view the pieces. I discovered ,as I was leaving, that there were small folding stools available tucked at the side of the reception desk but you only see this on the way out, and it means being able to carry them around with you and through the heavy doors. Not actually that useful.

The approach to displaying the art is minimal (as is the trend in many galleries) and the big blocks of text explaining the exhibition on white walls were difficult to read and separate from the main exhibit. Yet another barrier not only to any visitors with cognitive impairment but between visitors and an understanding of the material on display.

I was really disappointed. They could have done so much with that exhibition but instead it bordered on offensive and was a disservice to disabled visitors and the exhibits themselves. For it to be barely accessible to disabled people truly was the pièce de résistance. What is most infuriating was that it needn't have been that way. It would have taken only a little though and some consultation for the curators to have provided a sensitive and accessible display that reflected both the importance of the work and the aesthetic of the gallery.
Ensuring that doors opened or were open of course would have been a fitting start. Considering what greets visitors who do use the step free access should go without saying. Including sensitive and compassionate language in information panels to guide the tone of the gallery and visitors. More discussion of each piece, why it was chosen and what it represents. Staff who are alert to disabilist language from visitors and are able to offer critique in context instead of standing talking about their rota. Considering that many of the extant artefacts were on loan from the Thakrey Medical Museum who have an excellent record with regards to inclusiveness, it would not have been difficult to develop language and presentation that was sensitive and appropriate for the subject.

Prosthesis and augmentation do play a big part in our cultural history but more than that they play a big part in the everyday lives of many people who use and rely on them. Disability is not something that happens to other people. Disabled people are not another species or an interesting foot note in our anthropology. We exist, we live, we breathe and we visit art galleries.

The Body Extended should be beautiful, provocative, enlightening and inclusive. Instead you have created something that dehumanises and erases a part of human existence.

I am deeply disappointed and I am hurt.

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