Old portrait of a man smoking a pipe. His name, John Gale, is written underneath. The image is in black and white.
Credit: John Gale, known as Dumb Jack, a deaf mute man. Etching. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Wellcome Research Bursaries: what did our artists discover?

Over the past few months, six disabled artists have been using research bursaries from Unlimited and Wellcome Collection to uncover archive items that could inform their artistic practice or inspire new works. Unlimited Trainee, Alistair, has collated feedback on the projects so far…

On our recent online sharing day for the artists, staff from Wellcome Collection, peers, and colleagues heard the results of what Jo Bannon, Chisato Minamimura, Nye Russell Thompson, Christopher Samuel, Kristina Veasey, and Sophie Woolley had been exploring during their dedicated, supported periods of research. It was clear that all of the artists could probably have spent all week sharing their discoveries and insights, so it was a very rich and full day.

Not all artists necessarily have or want a practice that revolves around research or external inspiration, while for other artists it’s a fundamental part of what they do, but every one of the bursary artists found their own inspiration and pathways through the online archive of the Wellcome Collection. They were asked to focus particularly on the subjects of Work, Beauty, and the Medicine Man exhibition at Wellcome’s Euston Road premises in London. The latter’s current displays are largely centred on the particular enthusiasms of the collection’s original founder, Henry Wellcome. These are now undergoing a thorough re-assessment with a view to making the exhibition and other public-facing projects more reflective of where we are now.

 “Our historic collections are rich in human stories about life and health – many partially hidden or suppressed by previous interpretations. We want to work with researchers and with artists whose own life experiences can help to bring these stories to the surface and show how they remain relevant today. We are also interested in finding the stories that aren’t in the collection –  those written out of the history of medicine that the collection was supposed to tell.”- James Peto, Collections Gallery Project Director

Chisato explored the Collection’s extensive information on tattoos (and occasional samples of actual tattoos on real human skin, as seen in the Medicine Man exhibition) contrasting Western tattoos of the 19th and 20th centuries with the irezumi tradition and aesthetics of her native Japan.

Chisato Minamimura:

“This period of research was a truly wonderful experience, and the available collection/resources were so extensive, so much so that I felt that at times I was in a complex maze which went on for ever, finding out new and interesting things about tattoo culture at every turn, which only added to my knowledge and fuelled my curiosity.”

Although starting with different subjects and their own perspectives and experiences as disabled artists, Christopher Samuel (Medicine Man) and Sophie Woolley (Work) both asked similar questions about who is or is not represented in the archives, and who was and is able to be seen and heard in their own right versus those people or groups whose experiences get reported and interpreted by others. Jo Bannon expanded on the idea of what work means, where it takes place and how it’s recorded, especially with regard to disabled people and to the history of unpaid caring and social support that is amply documented in the collection.

Sophie Woolley:

“When researching, I learn so much more about the world and people than I can ever fit in one play or book. I’ve had a few potential creative projects suggest themselves to me, thanks to this short period of immersion in the brilliant treasure chest that is the Wellcome Collection. I was surprised to find out of print memoirs by disabled people from hundreds of years ago. Also the documents- like an old census, or where the trail of information about an individual went dead- threw up big questions. I will be carrying on my enquiries!”

From the outset, Wellcome Collection’s staff and the artists were aware that they would inevitably find terms, texts, and images that many people in the 21st century find false, damaging, offensive, colonialist, or otherwise unacceptable. Historically many disabled individuals, women, and poor, non-“European” or otherwise marginalised people very rarely had the opportunity to describe or define themselves. This meant that they were often othered, pathologised, patronised, demonised, or degraded in the discourses and images relating to them, because these tended to be created by people in positions of unquestioned economic, social, and health/medical privilege. One of the motivations behind the research bursaries was to allow artists, in conversation with staff from Wellcome Collection, time and space to unpack some of the outdated and problematic assumptions that are almost inevitably embedded in a collection that evolved from a medical museum opened nearly a century ago, and before that as the private collection of an extremely wealthy individual. Every one of the artists drew attention to this in their own way.

An almost automatically contentious subject to begin with, thinking about beauty in the context of Nye Russell Thompson’s research on prognathism (protruding jaw) and its historical treatments led to a fascinating discussion on the individual’s right to describe themselves and choose how – or if – their disability is “fixed.” Kristina Veasey told us that she rarely goes looking for ideas on purpose but actually found inspiration for a completely new project, following her discoveries of some bafflingly weird beauty advice and products. Part of her interest was in questioning assumptions and tropes that seem strikingly racist, ableist or misogynist nowadays. One tactic for moving forward in a way that includes rather than excludes is working with artists in the knowledge that these outdated assumptions are common in historical collections, and being open to artists’ interventions and critique.

All of the artists have told us they’re eager to keep working on their chosen subjects. Responsive inclusive, re-assessment of the Medicine Man exhibition and the collections is ongoing, informed by projects such as this one. If and when any or all of these inspirations turn into things you can see, hear or experience for yourself, we’ll be the first to let you know!

A note from Unlimited

Our current commission round opens for applications soon and includes both partner and non-partner awards. We are delighted that Wellcome Collection are partnering with us on our Main Commission Awards for artists making work that connects science, medicine, life and art. They are interested in applications from those who can;

  • Demonstrate an interest in collections and archives relating to health and/or an interest in exploring health-based science and research’
  • Creatively explore varied, perhaps challenging, perspectives on health
  • For this commission Wellcome Collection and Unlimited will consider any project that meets the overall aims, they are especially interested in projects which explore the themes of Beauty, or Work, or which aim to engage critically with Wellcome’s collections.

You can make an Expressions of Interest application from 1 October 2020 and the application portal closes on the 27 October 2020. All information on how to apply and additional criteria can be found here.