This blog has talked a lot about people’s reactions to the exhibition and how they feel when looking upon the wounded soldiers. Today however, my attention was drawn by one particular man’s preconceived notion of the exhibition before he had even entered the room or seen the figures.
I could hear this man in the main museum gallery saying in a very sarcastic way to his wife that “you better hold my hand as I might get scared”. Then on entering the room he stopped immediately upon seeing the figures and said “oh my God”. He was completely taken aback and commented on how “dark” they are. He said he can’t be good for me to sit in here with them all day. I was really surprised at how he reacted to the exhibition considering his bravado outside of the room.
People not only react in different ways to seeing the exhibition, but the warning that they are given about it potentially being upsetting because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter, also elicits a range of responses. This man clearly thought that the exhibition would have no emotional impact on him; almost mocking the warning, yet he was clearly affected and taken aback when he entered the room.
I have seen visitors have the complete opposite experience to this man. Today a woman came in with her information sheet covering her eyes and said she would only look at the books. She said she had been warned that the piece contained images of surgical procedures and that she couldn’t possibly look. However, after a few minutes in the room she put down her paper ‘blindfold’ and let out a palpable sigh of relief; “they’re not bad at all, just poor wounded men”, she said. This opens up lots of interesting questions about people’s perception of what they can handle and the reality; a dialogue that I have on a daily basis with the visitors to “And The Band Played On…”.
As I briefly mentioned in yesterday’s blog I think that most people, however uncomfortable they find the exhibition, can take something away from it that moves or interests them. There are clearly some people who find the subject matter difficult but there are also others for whom the piece sparks an interest or builds on an existing passion. I hope that the exhibition can be a starting point for some people; to grab their interest so that they go away and find out more about wartime injuries and the innovations in surgery that they cause. This is definitely the case for one couple that I met today.
They were absolutely astounded by the exhibit. They gasped every time I explained an injury or surgery and said they thought the art was wonderful! More than that they also took a huge interest in the books that we display in the room. They asked me about several of them and I wrote a long list of book titles down for them to take away. They told me they are going to try to get hold of some translations of the books as English wasn’t their first language. I recommended ‘Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty: 1914-1918’ by Emily Mayhew as it really helped me to prepare for the working in the exhibition but also because it is a fantastically interesting and absorbing read! I also spoke to a surgeon yesterday who was interested in Gillies and was going away to lookup ‘Plastic Surgery its Origins: The Life and Works of Sir Harold Gillies, 1882-1960’ by Richard Petty.
As well as hopefully inspiring visitors to find out more about the subject and themes of “And The Band Played On…” it is also becoming clear how interested people are in Eleanor herself. I have lost count of the amount of times I have handed out Eleanor’s website address to people who want to see more of her work. This goes to show the power of the exhibition; one small room stimulating interest in a subject that is so often not talked about; facial injury and disfigurement.