• Cecilia Kramar

Interview with Jennifer Wallis and Adina Smith

Interview with Jennifer Wallis, Exhibition Curator at Imperial College London

By Kimberly Glassman, Convergence UK Representative

11 June 2020, Email Correspondence

Tell me a bit about yourself, your work/studies, and how you got involved in this exhibition project.

I'm a historian by training and work as a Medical Humanities Teaching Fellow and Lecturer in the History of Science and Medicine at Imperial College London. One of my key teaching responsibilities is on the intercalated BSc in Medical Sciences with Humanities, Philosophy and Law, where I teach topics from the history of dissection to the history of the asylum. I'm also often involved with the art workshops delivered by guest artists and practitioners throughout the module, which is a rather nice bonus!

How did this exhibition come about? What was the driving thought behind curating such a diverse, interdisciplinary exhibition for the course BSc Medical Sciences with Humanities, Philosophy & Law?

The exhibition is a regular feature of our BSc (led by my wonderful colleague Giskin Day, Principal Teaching Fellow in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial). It happens every year and is linked to the project that students undertake as their major piece of assessed work. The beauty of the project is that students, in collaboration with specialist academics both within and beyond Imperial, can pursue a topic that interests them - provided it fits within the scope of the BSc. This year we've had projects on medical clowning, the history of mesmerism, labiaplasty, and the use of humour in medical memoirs. Alongside the written part of the project students produce an artwork (in any medium - space and cost permitting!) that intersects with the project themes. Although the artwork itself is not assessed, it's an important part of the project and a way for students to practice some of the skills that they've developed throughout the year in the artist workshops (including sculpture with Sarah Christie and photography with Liz Atkin).

The major themes that came out of the works focused on feelings of isolation, consequences of medical practices, feminist reclamation of medical studies, and the ethics of museum/scientific practices. How do these themes speak to one another and how does the academic infrastructural blending of the sciences and humanities bring about these discussions?

That's a really interesting observation. One of the challenges in teaching and learning about some of the topics we cover in the BSc is thinking 'across time' so that we can bring new theoretical lenses to bear on issues, but at the same time understand them in their own historical context. We have had brilliant discussions in class this year about things like the display of bodies in anatomical museums and how such display was, initially, part of a medical system that prized the dissected bodies of the poor and disenfranchised in order to advance medical knowledge. In turn, that stimulates conversation about best practice regarding modern-day body donation.

Those kind of discussions are also grounded in field trips. We're incredibly lucky to have museums like the Science Museum and V&A on our doorstep at Imperial, and throughout the year lectures, seminars, and workshops, are supplemented by visits to these and other London museums. In this way we're able to think about issues like display from a personal perspective too.

What is striking in teaching the BSc is how the history of medicine/science, and issues like the politics of display, are not always given much space in medical curricula. Many students are surprised to learn about the history of the field in which they work - the Sims vaginal speculum, for instance, might be an instrument familiar to many, but its evolution (part of J. Marion Sims' experiments on enslaved women, without anaesthetic) is less well known. However, this year at Imperial I've been involved in a new strand of first-year teaching that builds opportunities to learn about exactly these kinds of histories into the curriculum.

Many of the works reflect the current state of the world in relation to COVID-19 and its effects on our personal lives and the lives of medical practitioners. More than that, the entire exhibition persevered by being exhibited online in a social-distanced world. As curator, historian, scientist, and/or artist - how do you think art will be remembered and contextualised in the COVID-19 era?

There already seems to be something of a re-evaluation - or maybe enhanced recognition would be a better term - of the value of the arts and humanities in the current climate. Far from being something that is second-place to science, the arts have proven important to many of us in lockdown, whether that's visiting virtual galleries, listening to history podcasts, or creating work ourselves. I hope that sense of the value of the humanities sticks in the long term.

The idea of accountability seems to be at the intersection of law, philosophy, and science. How do you think art brings such issues of accountability to light? What are the effects and importance of visualising these issues.

I guess art allows for conversations that, in other contexts, might be difficult to raise. It's not always easy to voice concerns about systemic issues, for instance, in formal channels like committees. Having an artwork publicly available that invites a consideration of those questions is perhaps a more fluid way in to important conversations - in past (physical) exhibitions, for instance, a consultant might be intrigued by a work and end up chatting informally to a student about the issues it explores, a conversation that may not have developed otherwise.

The artist is also accountable for their work, of course, and we often discuss how best to explore an issue that might be contentious or difficult. In visualizing illness or patient experience, for instance, we should be mindful of not 'ventriloquizing' the experiences of others, or assuming that all viewers will interpret works in the same way, or the way that we intended.

Do you plan to participate in similar projects in the future? Do you think it is important for the sciences and the humanities to turn to art as a space for collaboration and convergence? If so, why?

As noted above, this exhibition is a regular feature of our BSc. What was new this year was the online format - although we're looking forward to having a physical exhibition again, I think we might consider making the virtual exhibition a regular feature too, as a way to broaden the potential audience for the student's work.

Every year the exhibition brings together a very mixed crowd of people - encompassing the arts and sciences - provoking new conversations and connections. Art gives students (and tutors!) the freedom to look at issues in new ways and from new perspectives, develops their ability to communicate information via different media, and offers an opportunity to make scientific and medical research accessible to a broader audience. Our experience of the melding of the two in this BSc has been overwhelmingly positive, and we're looking forward to doing much more in the future.

'Unlit shadows' by Adina Smith



Interview with Adina Smith, 4th Year Medical Student at Imperial College London

By Kimberly Glassman, Convergence UK Representative

12 June 2020, Email Correspondence

Tell me a bit about yourself, your work/studies, and how you got involved in this exhibition project.

I am a medical student at Imperial College London and have just completed my intercalated BSc in Medical Humanities, Philosophy and Law. Ever since school I have found myself torn between creating art and practicing science. Despite always knowing I wanted to go to medical school, choosing to do so seemingly meant I would have to give up my art. For the first three years this was very much the case, drawing out the Krebs cycle or sketching cancer pathways was the closest I could get to involving my creative side in my studies. Fortunately for me, Imperial offers a Medical Humanities course which offered the creative thinking my medical education had been missing so far.

How did this exhibition come about? What was the driving thought behind curating such a diverse, interdisciplinary exhibition for the course BSc Medical Sciences with Humanities, Philosophy & Law?

In the later part of the Medical Humanities course each student undertakes a project on the topic of their choice. As part of this project we were all required to create a piece of art that reflects our work in some way. The topic of my project was the taboo of miscarriage. By creating daily artistic responses to my research, as a form of autoethnographic study, I evaluated the potential of using art-based teaching on miscarriage to educate medical students on the patient experience. Art played a huge role throughout my project, not just as a final piece. The process of creating art from my research enabled me to uncover aspects of the miscarriage experience I had not previously thought about. In this way, art allows for an incredibly reflexive process that is under-utilised in medical education.

The major themes that came out of the works focused on feelings of isolation, consequences of medical practices, feminist reclamation of medical studies, and the ethics of museum/scientific practices. How do these themes speak to one another and how does the academic infrastructural blending of the sciences and humanities bring about these discussions?

Although medicine is of course a science, it is also deeply humanistic. To best care for patients it is incredibly important to develop both these aspects of medicine, applying the scientific knowhow in a personal and attentive approach. Without humanities, medicine runs the risk of missing important aspects of the patient experience, failing to tend to the patient as well as the disease. Throughout the year we have had numerous discussions on subjects such as this, including philosophical understandings of disease versus illness, and the importance of literature in medicine. This exhibition was yet another platform by which the humanities have facilitated discussions that encouraged deeper thinking, beyond the science to the deeply personal. The importance of the patient narrative in medical education is often overlooked, meaning we sometimes miss aspects of medical care that require improvement. The patient narrative can come in so many different forms, whether it is literature, poetry, or art. Each of these representations facilitate human discussions due to differing interpretations and considerations they give rise to, a pleasant change from some of the more rigid aspects of medical education.

Many of the works reflect the current state of the world in relation to COVID-19 and its effects on our personal lives and the lives of medical practitioners. More than that, the entire exhibition persevered by being exhibited online in a social-distanced world. As curator, historian, scientist, and/or artist - how do you think art will be remembered and contextualised in the COVID-19 era?

The call for more appreciation of the arts has been a long time coming. Covid-19 has unsurprisingly highlighted how dependant we are on the arts, whether it is literature, poetry, film or so on. It has undoubtably been the creative side of things that has been seeing people through. Personally, I have benefitted by being on this course through lockdown in ways I could never have anticipated. The process of creating daily drawings with more meaning than any pieces I had done before, enabled me to feel a great sense of purpose in what I was doing (something I have been dreadfully missing since handing in the project!) I have had time to engage with and explore the educational potential of art, when previously it had been a purely therapeutic practice for me.

The shift to online exhibitions has its positives and negatives. While online exhibitions have enabled us to access art in different ways, much of what makes viewing art so enjoyable to me is somewhat missed online. However, as a substitute in uncertain times, online exhibitions provide us with a taste of what we miss and potentially enable the increased exposure of promising up and coming artists, with more attention being given to the online space.

The idea of accountability seems to be at the intersection of law, philosophy, and science. How do you think art brings such issues of accountability to light? What are the effects and importance of visualising these issues.

Art can communicate topics or issues that can be difficult to discuss or instigate discussions on. This is something I considered deeply throughout my project. Miscarriage is understandably a very sensitive topic and as a result, many women experience a silence or taboo in society. This is similar when discussing terminal illness and death. As Michele Petrone’s series, The Emotional Cancer Journey beautifully shows, art can be used to communicate, educate and facilitate conversations on difficult topics. It is our emotional response to art that enables this process to be so effective. The combination of art and words (or essays in the case of our projects) enables us to engage with someone else’s experience in a way that is incredibly useful when attempting to develop a holistic approach to medical practice.

Do you plan to participate in similar projects in the future? Do you think it is important for the sciences and the humanities to turn to art as a space for collaboration and convergence? If so, why?

Yes and yes! I would absolutely love to take part in similar projects in the future, it has been an incredibly rewarding and educational process that I am so lucky to have been a part of. Unfortunately, medical education is not as integrated with the humanities as I would like, and this year has evidenced for me how important it is to change this. I am very much hoping to try and take my project further, perhaps leading some art-bast teaching with small groups of students, however, zoom is not the most ideal platform for this, so precise plans are not yet clear!

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