Friday, October 16, 2009

Narrative Remains at the Hunterian

Karen Ingham's new film and exhibit, Narrative Remains, at the Hunterian Museum is a fine example of not only Medical Humanities but also of doing a great deal with very little. Her subjects are a series of pathological specimens, collected and annotated by John Hunter. Neat little jars, with neat little labels, whose contents are anything but - among them, the throat and larynx of a singer silenced by tuberculosis, a diseased liver, a cancerous lung and bowel segment. Ingham's work takes the viewer right inside Hunter's pathology lab as he decides which specimens to keep, and then removes and preserves them. Yet it is not his voice we hear. Instead, the narrative of the remains is given by the patients themselves. It is as if their spirits hovered at Hunter's shoulder while he worked, reading the notes he made, explaining how they suffered and understanding why they died. They are neat little ghosts, calmed by death, intrigued by their awakening, first by Hunter, then by Ingham. If they sound pleased that out of so many specimens, so many dead, they have been selected for immortality, then they should be. Ingham's film may be small scale but it is technically flawless. The jars are lit and photographed like bright jewels, drawing the viewer towards the unsettling contents at their heart, mesmerising. The film echoes the overall effect of the Hunterian Museum itself, with its own extraordinary setting of light and glass.

Everything about the exhibit is useful and moving. The catalogue essays are models of clarity. Part of the film is genuinely funny (no spoiler). This is what museums should be doing - allowing artists of vision to interpret and illuminate their permanent collections - bringing life, light and understanding, allowing the silent to speak.

Narrative Remains is at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PE. Open 10-5pm Tues- Sat. Free Admission. Exhibit runs until 5th December.