Inside a library, a person with short black hair sits on a chair, their back turned towards the camera from a side angle. They are reading, a stack of books on the desk in front of them.
Wellcome Collection Library Spaces, 2019. Image credit: © Wellcome

Encountering materials at Wellcome Collection: Unlimited artists’ perspectives

Earlier this year, Wellcome Collection, a museum and library exploring health and human experience, reached out to Unlimited. Helen Wakely from the Inclusion Team is researching how to better manage and acknowledge the materials in the collections which might cause distress. A quote from a previous article by Helen sums it up: ‘How do people respond to distressing collections-focused situations? …And what kinds of support would be helpful?’ Helen explained that Wellcome Collection are not seeking to erase history. Rather, they want to find out how to minimise negative interactions by listening to the experiences of those who use the archive. What should be in place which currently is lacking?

Wellcome Collection asked us to collaborate with them on this project for the wealth of experience of our commissioned artists and alumni. The project consists of three stages: a survey, some paid focus group discussions, and three commissioned responses. Read on for details of each stage.

The collaborative project began with a survey titled – ‘How does it feel to encounter materials at Wellcome Collection?’ going out to 32 Unlimited artists who had had some experience of the collections at Wellcome. The survey explains that Wellcome ‘recognise[s] that elements of our collections are historically linked to racism and ableism’ and that they want to carry out this research in order to avoid ‘making assumptions about how different materials may affect people.’

We received 13 survey responses from artists, with some extremely insightful descriptions of their experiences.

We are extremely grateful to all the artists who responded to the survey. We appreciate their time but, also, appreciate their answering questions about what could be sensitive subject matter.

Insights from the artists

Artists were asked whether they had experienced distress when engaging with collections materials. Six artists said that they were ‘faced unexpectedly by distressing materials.’ Of those six, four went on to express that, regardless, they felt pressure to carry on working with those materials. Four respondents said that they ‘encountered materials that presented offensive perspectives or stereotypes without contextual information’ and four reported having ‘encountered oppressive language in collections descriptions or labels.’ One artist offered this insight: ‘I worried that if people without the same awareness as me encounter the same things they might take them at face value…I also worried about how few things were written by deaf or disabled people.’

The survey went on to ask artists: ‘What action did you take that you found supportive?’ The majority of respondents said that they talked to peers, friends, family, or colleagues. Three artists replied that they ‘weren’t sure what kind of support they could access.’

Artists were then asked to share detail on any particularly useful forms of support. Only four out of 13 replied saying that they had accessed support but, amongst those, were these comments: ‘Wellcome and Unlimited staff said that they would be doing work on this in future’; ‘Staff made themselves available to listen…that helped me, to know my feelings had been acknowledged.’

‘What could Wellcome Collection have done to reduce your feelings of distress?’ the survey then asked. Of the nine responses, here are some comments:

‘I think, initially, early signposting may have helped, but I think you have to have an awareness about the material you are researching in the context it was collected.’

‘Clear content notices and contemporary contextualisation from disabled people and spaces – routes to challenge and raise concerns. In my view, this is not just a historical issue or an issue just with items within the collection but also about how Wellcome engages with clinicians, researchers, and the medical community and how this work is presented and discussed within their spaces and more widely.’

‘Wellcome Collection could have a person who is trained to provide appropriate support.’

One artist felt that language – particularly in the field of psychiatry – was still problematic today. They felt that it would be useful to have ‘a disclaimer somewhere saying that archive materials may use language which was seen as appropriate at the time but might now be seen as offensive. But [even now] things are also bigger than what Wellcome can do.’

The final survey question asked: ‘What resources would you like to help you or others navigate Wellcome Collection materials in a more supportive way?’ Of the choices available, almost one hundred per cent of respondents agreed that ‘Content and/or warnings that acknowledge the potential impacts of collections on the people who engage with them’ would be a positive change. The response was closely followed by almost equally high numbers for the following choices:

  • Training for staff in providing appropriate support
  • Facilities that provide people with options to engage
  • Support for external researchers/collaborators
  • Transparent procedure for audiences to give feedback on materials
  • Training for Wellcome Collection staff on engaging with audiences

Artists also contributed their own ideas for resources: ‘More artist-interpreted access available [in order to] create a different approach to what can seem cold, scientific, and medical.’

One artist raised the point that certain ‘trigger warnings’ may be countertherapeutic, and cited a recent Harvard study which shows evidence of this.

Another artist felt that there was a ‘self-responsibility’ element to a collection user’s work. They raise the point: ‘Where does pastoral care begin and end?’ and suggest that there might be a certain level of ‘intensity’ to Wellcome Collection being seen as an ‘invigilator.’

Finally, one artist wrote of their experiences of Wellcome Collection, generally. Whilst they were keen to point out that, during their interactions, the staff had always been ‘supportive, keen to listen and make improvements,’ they had also encountered strong negative feelings at the content of the materials. ‘It was not surprising,’ they said, ‘as when encountering historic materials you expect to come across old fashioned views. However, the anger, frustration and rage that I felt burning inside was unavoidable on reading them…The reason they were so triggering was because these views and articles are the foundations on which today’s systems, and society’s expectations and rules are based on…they shaped minds.’

What comes next?

Wellcome Collection and Unlimited’s artists and alumni will now move to the second stage of this project. Esther Appleyard-Fox will be facilitating some paid artist focus groups, to discuss this subject in more detail.

A further element of this project will be a commissioning stage. Three disabled artists will be commissioned to create personal responses to the question ‘How does it feel to encounter materials in the collections at Wellcome Collection?’

For Helen at Wellcome Collection, the insights so generously shared by the artists pose crucial questions not just about the collections, but also about the way that Wellcome Collection manages them. It is critical that the collections can be felt as a collective resource, with this listening phase leading to collaborative action after the commissioning stage.

As one artist puts it: ‘[It] is not just the Collection materials that produce distress/barriers, but also the processes and systems of the organisation and venue, so any support in this area needs to have space in it for reflection on both the materials and the process of accessing them…This should be a two-way process, where the organisation has clearly defined and transparent ways of listening.’

For more information on any of the elements of this project, please get in touch with Rachel Walker: rachel@weareunlimited.org.uk