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Awards winning comedian, Francesca Martinez, reflects on her involvement in a University of Leicester project that examined ‘the implications of a society that values some lives more than others’

An extraordinary project led by the University of Leicester brought together 4 artists and 8 of the UK’s most renowned medical museums in a unique collaboration to question and challenge our attitudes towards difference with the aim of stimulating debate around the implications of a society that values some lives more than others. Through a series of ground breaking events held in museums across the UK, the project called Exceptional & Extraordinary has stimulated and shaped debate around deeply entrenched negative views of disabled people that manifest themselves in numerous ways from everyday acts of disrespect and discrimination to hate crimes.

Initiated and led by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, Exceptional and Extraordinary was a collaborative project involving 4 artists – comedianFrancesca Martinez, film-maker David Hevey, dance company Deaf Men Dancing led by Mark Smith, artist and playwright Julie McNamara – and 8 museums (the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS); the Science Museum; the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds; the Royal London Hospital Museum and Archives; Surgeons’ Hall Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; Museum of the Mind; Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability).  Project advisors were Tony Heaton, SHAPE and Katherine Ott, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England, Exceptional & Extraordinary was an ambitious collaborative research project that aimed to engage museum visitors, professionals in the field of biomedicine and the broader public in a reassessment of widely held assumptions surrounding physical and mental difference, disability and contemporary (often negative and discriminatory) attitudes towards disabled people.

The arts commissions that were created as part of the project, offered new ways of seeing that were used to question and stimulate public, biomedical professional and media debate around the social, cultural and ethical implications of medicalised ways of understanding difference that pervade biomedical professional practice as well as shape broader public and societal attitudes towards disability and disabled people.

Jocelyn Dodd from the University of Leicester said: “Following our previous project with Mat Fraser – Cabinet of Curiosities that won the Observer’s Ethical Award for Art and Culture in 2014 – we saw the new need to extend public debate around the persistent and troubling consequences of our negative attitudes towards difference. This latest project, Exceptional & Extraordinary,resulted in lively and provocative debates across the UK and challenged museums and medical professionals as well as the public to think differently about human diversity. As the project draws to a close, it is timely to consider the impact Exceptional & Extraordinary has had on not only the medical museums and audiences that experienced the artworks, but the artists as well.”

In a new post, released on 24 February, Francesca Martinez, reflects on this in a special guest blog for the School of Museum Studies (http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/museumstudies/).

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