of an Exhibition
Published on November 23, 2012
Museum: Science Museum
Visit Date: November, 2012
Pain is such a pervasive aspect of our lives – sometimes it’s a temporary feeling, with which we can somehow cope, but for many people it is a chronic condition that becomes part of who they are.
“Pain Less”, a new temporary exhibition at the Science Museum, explores various aspects of pain in human life and presents what contemporary research is doing to understand how pain works.
The exhibition is part of “Antenna”, the section of the Science Museum dedicated to contemporary science located in the Wellcome Wing.
The exhibition layout is very open and clear; on a big red wall we see the title of the exhibition and 4 black booths with the stories and the objects. Near the entrance a 5th booth is used for the credits of the exhibition, which acknowledges all the people who co-curated the exhibition. “Pain Less” was developed together with various groups of people: teenagers who worked on the video game “Ouch”, adults who created a video artwork describing how pain is experienced by those who suffer from chronic pain, and several other individuals who worked with the museum to develop the stories presented in the exhibition.
There are 4 main stories presented in “Pain Less” to show how researchers are studying the link between pain, body and the brain, seeking new ways to improve pain relief. Each story is presented with a short video, displayed on a high resolution screen. The level of detail in the videos is stunning, and the screens are really like “windows” into the life of the four characters. The close ups of their eyes are a dramatic and very emotional way to connect the visitors to characters and their stories, but also to show them as real people, just like the millions for whom pain is a daily component of their lives. For an example of the videos, see http://youtu.be/cAz6IWQEcPU and http://youtu.be/JIrVuyVMy2s.
The videos create a strong context for the objects on display. One of the strengths of “Pain Less” is in how it blends real objects, computer-based displays, videos and text. Some of the objects would be very difficult to understand without seeing them in action in the videos. For example, there is a laser stimulator used to provoke very specific burning pain on the skin of a subject, or a DNA sequencer able to read the whole human genome in one day. These are basically “gray boxes” which do not tell much about what they do, if we just look at them. But in this display they acquire significance and meaning, they make the stories of the four characters profoundly real.
Displaying objects is also a way to show how quite often scientific research is not only dependent on complicated equipment or expensive tools: in the story of Peter, who suffers from phantom limb pain, we see on display an Xbox Kinect which is used to create a virtual reality world where he can use his missing arm and find relief from pain. A video game is more effective than any treatment so far.
There are also personal objects, like the plasticine model made by Carol while she was under sedation for a very painful operation. At a certain point she seemed to be conscious of the pain she was feeling, but after the operation she cannot remember anything. The object in this case is a testimony of what we still don’t know about consciousness, awareness and memory.
To complement the four stories, there is a short video artwork which was created together with a group of adults with chronic pain. While it’s impossible to understand what it means to have chronic pain if one doesn’t have it, this video is a dramatic representation of how these adults experience their pain, the questions they have, their fears and ways of coping and controlling it.
Finally, there are two large touch tables with “Ouch”, the computer game developed with the young people’s participatory group. They developed a fast game where the properties of painkillers, placebo, new experimental drugs etc are used to protect our brain from different kinds of pain. You can play the game online at http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/onlinestuff/games/ouch.aspx
“Pain Less” shows how well the Science Museum has perfected the art of object-based exhibitions which are compelling, engaging and contemporary. In a small space they address various audiences – the “broad” public with the 4 core modules of the exhibition, and youngsters with the video game. The video artwork provides also a comfortable sitting area which I think should be a mandatory feature of any exhibition, large or small. Not only older people will appreciate that, but anybody who wants to sit down and think about what they are looking at.
Exhibitions like this one are a real interface between the world of scientific research and the public – we see what the researchers are doing, we hear real stories, we see the very same objects that scientist and patients use. The “voice” of the exhibition is not anymore the museum’s one, but we as visitors can read and see perspectives and experiences brought in from a variety of participants. It is however a “one way” interface – from all these sources to the public.
I wonder if and when museums will be able to use exhibitions such as this one to allow the dialogue in the other direction, from the visitors to the scientists and researchers. This is what already happens in programs and debates, where the public has the opportunity to discuss and to some extent even influence the work of scientists and researchers. Exhibitions could then function as conduits, or brokers, between the public and scientists, with a much broader access than what is now possible with programs and debates.
Small scale exhibitions like “Pain Less” seem perfect places to experiment if and how such dynamics can be implemented, and I hope the Science Museum will push in this direction. In the meantime, however, if you’re in London don’t miss this gem.