To Display or not to display?
By Jenni M Fewery, on 8 July 2014
While undertaking my Museum Studies Masters at UCL this year, common themes that kept cropping up were the issues that arise when displaying certain subjects or indeed objects. During our Museums: A Critical Perspective class we covered ethnographic collections, ‘Dark Tourism’ and national memory and the debate over displaying human remains. With my interests lying with the history of science and medicine I wanted to find a topic I could sink my teeth into whilst also focusing on museums of science and their methods of display.
In April a UCL Science Collections curator asked me if I would be interested in taking a look at a 1930s dog respirator as a starting point for a dissertation topic. I was informed that the object may have been used during animal experimentation and there were concerns about how to display it responsibly, considering its historic role in experiments to which so many have a negative responses. I researched the history of vivisection – live animal dissection – and discovered the story of the little brown dog. During the early 1900s protests and riots spread through London as anti-vivisectionists campaigned against experimentation on animals in response to the illegal dissection of a little brown dog. Anti-vivisectionists commissioned a bronze statue of the dog to be erected as a memorial, antagonising medical students or “anti-doggers” and resulting in the statue being removed under the cover of darkness. In 1985 another statue, commissioned by the National Anti-Vivisection Society, was erected in Battersea Park and remains there today.
Animal experimentation continues to be carried out in many institutions (and in May UCL released this statement as a commitment to openness around animal research) and I am interested to explore how museums display objects that illustrate the historical aspect of it or whether they touch on the subject at all. As an object that has the potential to create quite a stir whilst also being historically significant, how do museums approach their display? So far, by simply visiting the selection of museums that do hold such objects I have found that rather than approaching the subject head on and saying, “this is what happened”, museums tend to avoid discussing the contentious topic of animal experimentation. This in turn has led me to conduct further visitor research in order to understand if there is a reason for this, if visitors would rather not see such objects or if offering the object in different contexts aids understanding without causing a negative impact.
I will be displaying the dog respirator, with accompanying text, in the Grant Museum – which has a lot of experience in asking people to engage with contentious debates – and asking visitors to take part in a short questionnaire so that I can better understand responses to the display of objects associated with animal experimentation. The purpose of the survey is to evaluate visitor responses and see if museums really need to gloss over the history of animal experimentation. I will use the data to suggest methods museums could use when displaying such objects or if their display will remain, as the topic does, contentious.
The object display and visitor questionnaires will take place between 7th and 11th July during the Museum’s opening hours (1pm-5pm). If you would like to take part please come in a take a look. I will be writing another blog post to discuss the findings of the survey so please keep a look out.
Jenni Fewery is a UCL Museum Studies Masters Student.