Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Museum visitor numbers?

The news today reported that the national museums have hugely increased their visitor numbers since entrance fees were abolished. I am a regular visitor to the Science Museum, the V&A and the Natural History Museum and on not one occasion can I recall being 'counted'. No one clicked or clocked me in, insisted on giving me a free map as a way of keeping track, or electronically registered my footfall through the entrance. HOW DO THEY KNOW how many visitors they've had?

On the subject of museums, the Science Museum's Ingenious website has an interesting section on Health. It includes some wonderful pictures of artefacts from the Museum's collections, from a preserved genetically-engineered obese mouse, to a smallpox pustule gauge.

Sontag and Darling

Amidst the incomprehensible tragedy of the tsunami in Asia, also saddened to hear of the death of Susan Sontag from cancer. I didn't always agree with what she wrote, but she was an excellent, provocative essayist and had a profound influence on critical studies of the uses to which words and pictures are put.

On a happier note, just discovered Julia Darling's website. Julia is a poet and a novelist, and has written very well on the experience of having cancer. A look at her weblog shows how admirably focused she must be to concentrate on her writing (and she's involved in a LOT of projects) in spite of undergoing treatment.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Healing Environment conference

The Royal College of Physicians is hosting a one-day conference on 'The healing environment in our communities and healthcare settings: research excellence into practice'. It's on Monday 21 February, at the RCP in London. It will look at how the 'physical fabric and design of community space contributes to better social order and improved health'. Click here for the programme.

Monday, December 13, 2004


My friend, and quite the best researcher I know, Michal Sofer has found this intruiging piece of dance theatre. 'Lullaby', by the Jasmin Vardimon Dance Company, looks at the relationships between patients and those caring for them. It's on at Richmond on 21 February. A page of reviews is available here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

'Edge of Life'

Did anyone see 'Edge of Life' last Thursday on BBC2? This was a documentary following the stories of two very premature babies and their families. I found it hugely unsettling, and I've been trying to figure out all week WHY it made me feel so uncomfortable. The programme tracked the parents from before the babies were born, meaning that the parents must have given prior consent for the births to be filmed and for the cameras to be present at key meetings with medical staff, etc. -- the kinds of moments which are intensely personal. I am not sure why any parent would knowingly agree to this in the face of such uncertaintly about the pregancy's outcome unless a particularly persuasive producer talked them into the educational value of sharing emotional trauma on national TV. These parents clearly were not exhibitionists -- they weren't the usual willing victims of reality TV whose exploitation in shows like 'Wife Swap' or 'I'm a Celebrity' is all too predictable. So why agree to be filmed at your most vulnerable, especially when that vulnerability extends to a very sick baby?

I think what unsettled me most was that I was constantly mentally 'filling in the gaps' about what we did not see but must inevitably have played a dominant part in making the programme -- imagining the conversations and negotiations that must constantly have gone on between cameraperson and the family. 'Could you say how you feel?' 'Do you mind if I put a camera in the incubator?' 'Could I film your response when the doctor tells you your baby's not making any progress?' We saw glimpses of distraught parents walking arm in arm down hospital corridors, surreptitiously (it felt) filmed from behind a half-closed door. No matter what level of consent was solicited from the participants, how could they possibly anticipate the invasion of their grief? It felt horribly voyeuristic.

Both babies survived with a huge amount of medical intervention. One couldn't help imagining whether other babies were filmed that didn't make it. The documentary raised issues about choices that have to be made when technology makes the difference between a viable birth and a late miscarriage. These are issues worth discussing, but I couldn't help feeling that this was at the expense of intruding in the lives of others in an exploitative way in order to make poignant TV. I'm not even sure it was enlightening about the issues it sought to address. I saw a previous programme in this series about whether disfigured children should have plastic surgery. That seemed to me to be far more informative and less voyeuristic: admittedly the stakes seemed lower. I'm not in favour of any sort of censorship, but I do question the ethical value of this kind of public exposure under the banner of education. I wanted to switch off in protest, but that wouldn't have stopped it from happening. And it was nailbiting stuff in an agonising sort of way.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Disability Film Festival at NFT

The 6th Disability Film Festival is on at the NFT this week (1-5 December). Organized by the London Disability Arts Forums and the BFI the festival aim to raise awareness to issues of disability and filmmaking across the UK and in other countries. It includes panel discussions but most importantly features a wide range of documentaries, experimental and shorts by disabled filmmakers. Worth checking out. For programme details see: http://www.bfi.org.uk/showing/nft/dff/index.html

Thursday, December 02, 2004

'Mutants' book wins award

The Guardian First Book prize has been awarded to Dr Armand Leroi who researches evolutionary development at Imperial College. Described as 'a study of the curious and touching forms into which the human body is sometimes cast', this book is bound to be of interest in how we define what is 'normal' and the depiction of deformity in popular culture. Amazon is currently selling the book at 30% off. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Novel approach to signs of Alzheimer's

A new study has shown that studying literature has potential as a diagnostic tool for neural degeneration. Peter Garrard of UCL has found that Iris Murdoch's vocabulary and use of language was much simpler in her final novel, published a year before her diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease, than her earlier work. The story is covered today by the Guardian, Telegraph, The Times, and the Independent. There was also an interesting report on the Today Programme this morning (08.36 timeslot) on this, which included an interview with Murdoch's husband, John Bayley.