Healing and the Museum

Since the 1960s, the prevailing biomedical definition of health—an understanding of wellness and illness framed in terms of physical disease and its presence/absence—has been called into question. A broader definition acknowledges the entanglements of body, psyche and society, emphasizing social and cultural determinants of health including marginalization. Museums have long been at the center of debates over how institutions perpetuate such harms or offer opportunities for remediation—an ambivalence seen in ongoing efforts to decolonize museums alongside the emergence of the cultural prescription (a museum visit recommended by a health care provider). Through emergent practices of contemporary art informed by lineages of institutional critique and social practice from the 1990s—but also through novel forms of engagement extending across art and public health—museums are being reimagined as places of care. Inspired by projects including artist Grace Ndiritu’s Healing the Museum and curator Clémentine Deliss’s Metabolic Museum, this panel invites consideration of how artists, curators, educators and publics are reconfiguring museums in relationship to health and wellness. Proposal topics may include but are not limited to: the development of healing interventions by artists in museums; the convergence of clinic and art gallery or studio spaces; efforts to re-signify and repair museum collections and archives; advocacy related to health justice and access through art-making, exhibitions or public engagement; and institutional resistance to change and virtue signaling. Methodological approaches from curatorial, artistic and art historical perspectives, and beyond, are welcome, as are papers addressing inter/transnational, European and U.K. contexts.   

Session Convenor:

Megan Voeller, Tyler School of Art & Architecture, Temple University, and Thomas Jefferson University


Sarah Richter, University of Vermont

Re-signifying Museums: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’ Immersive Performances and the Restoration of African Diasporic Heritage

This presentation explores the transformative power of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’ immersive performance pieces within museum settings, focusing on her adept utilization of traditional African diasporic performance techniques. Campos-Pons, a renowned contemporary artist, employs her interdisciplinary approach to engage with museum collections and archives, seeking to re-signify and repair the historical narratives embedded within these institutions. Drawing inspiration from her Afro-Cuban heritage and diasporic experiences, Campos-Pons intricately weaves together elements of ritual, storytelling, and symbolism in her performances. These immersive experiences serve as a medium for reclaiming agency and voice for marginalized communities, particularly those with African roots, whose narratives have often been distorted or silenced within museum contexts. The paper delves into the ways in which Campos-Pons’ performances challenge conventional museum practices by disrupting static displays and inviting audiences to actively participate in the redefinition of cultural narratives. By incorporating traditional African diasporic performance techniques, such as dance, music, and oral storytelling, Campos-Pons transcends the boundaries of conventional exhibition spaces, fostering a dynamic and inclusive dialogue between the audience, the artist, and the museum artifacts. The paper addresses the reparative aspect of Campos-Pons’ work, emphasizing how her performances function as a means of healing and restoration for both individuals and the collective memory. Through the intentional re-contextualization of artifacts and archival materials, Campos-Pons aims to mend the historical injustices embedded in museum collections, contributing to a broader discourse on the decolonization of cultural institutions.

Amanda Cachia, University of Houston

Bodies Are Not Archival: Disability, Decolonization and Hospital Aesthetics

This paper explores the work of contemporary disabled artist Dominic Quagliozzi, whomdeconstructs his lived experience with chronic illness and disability through various media, including drawing, painting, photography, and performance. Using medical materials such as hospital gowns and clinic table tissue paper, he references new constructions of the body through both its presence and absence. By repurposing and recoding these materials into art, he explores the emotional and psychological moments of vulnerability, anxiety, fragility, and resilience experienced during hospital stays and whilst managing illness. I argue that Quagliozzi’s work is offering a new hospital aesthetics, where disabled artists are taking health and care into their own hands and body-minds. Hospital aesthetics is defined as artwork that explores the ever-subjective experience of being sick and ill which is made outside of a clinical and therapeutic setting, and which is in opposition to the medical model of disability. Hospital aesthetics also aims to show how social and cultural determinants of health, inequality and social inclusion impact people with disabilities. Based on these ideas, I further argue that Quagliozzi’s work extends the imperative of decolonizing the gallery into the act of decolonizing the hospital; Quagliozzi goes against the tendency for the medical industrial complex to treat disabled bodies as specimens and eventually, archives. Instead, his hospital aesthetic shows a different side to disabled bodies that attempts to undo the social and cultural impacts the hospital has had on its disabled patients, both historically and in the contemporary moment.

Kirsten Lloyd, The University of Edinburgh

Our Bodies are Not the Problem: Healthcare Activism, Feminism and the Museum

In 2020 the artist Olivia Plender was commissioned to create Our Bodies are Not the Problem, The Problem is Power, a new socially engaged artwork for Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL, an Accredited Museum). Part of the Life Support: Forms of Care in Art and Activism curatorial project, Plender’s intervention focused on the histories of women’s health activism and grassroots collective initiatives including the well-known global publication project, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Plender began by transforming GWL’s Community Room to make it more comfortable for the individuals and groups who use it. Incorporating drawings, soft furnishings, new lighting and displays of health-related materials pulled from the GWL archive, the space was then used as a conversation piece within which Plender hosted a series of workshops for women to share their experiences of living with chronic health conditions. In turn, these will lead to the production of a new workbook which has been acquired in advance for The University of Edinburgh’s Contemporary Art Research Collection. This paper will focus on the curatorial and institutional dimensions of this durational artwork. As a member of the respective curatorial teams and as an art historian, I consider what it reveals about the limitations and potential of existing museum models when it comes to facilitating and collecting practices which centre healthcare. What might a feminist methodology look like in this context and what role can museums play in terms of bridging the gap between the evolution of feminist theories on care in the academy and the negotiation of feminist demands on the ground?

Nicola Guy, Goldsmiths, University of London

I’m Sorry It’s Late, But It Was Just Another Fucking Thing to Do

This paper looks at the development from institutional critique as an artistic movement to become an internal debate happening within museums and galleries. In the last decade the use of the term ‘care’ has become prevalent in programming materials, with exhibitions and events claiming to operate through a methodology of care. Simultaneously institutions are under more pressure than ever to deliver increasingly ambitious projects on diminishing budgets, often coming at the detriment of staffs’ working conditions. While care may be centred in programming, how can this process be meaningfully implemented within the institution itself? This research will depart from curatorial strategies employed as part of art programmes under new institutionalism to instead look at those tactics coming from non-managerial staff to reimagine the conditions of cultural work in arts organisations. This includes unionisation in museums and galleries (PCS Tate United, Art Handlers Alliance etc.), whistleblowing in the form of anonymous social media accounts that reveal discrimination or salary disparities, and practice-led projects that examine working conditions in art institutions, such as Manual Labours. The presentation draws on both academic research and my own experiences working in the arts, including contributing to organising the unionisation of an institution. Questions asked include whose responsibility it should be to ensure fair working conditions in publicly funded art institutions; what the implications of working with concepts such as care and ultimately whether these projects can succeed within the current climate of institutions or whether it remains just another thing for overworked staff to do.

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