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An exhibition on torture?

By: Dr Lynda Kelly, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 17 Dec 2009

In 2003 we were considering hosting an exhibition on Medieval Torture from the Museo della tortua in San Gimignano, Italy. In considering this exhibition (which we decided against taking for a range of reasons) we undertook a front-end evaluation which I am posting here as background for our planned All About Evil exhibition.

The exhibition portrayed a history of torture featuring instruments from Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. When considering this exhibition we conducted a peice of research to gauge responses to the concept among potential visitors. The study combined a mixture of surveys, depth interviews and a focus group. I am posting a summary of the findings here as they relate to our All About Evil exhibition.

Audience
The research indicated that there was an audience who would be interested in visiting the exhibition. The majority of visitors surveyed (62%) indicated that they were likely to come to the museum to see an exhibition on the topic of torture. However, only 14% expressed strong likelihood, others expressed a milder intention.

The potential audience for this exhibition was very similar to audiences for other exhibitions the Museum had recently held on contemporary culture, particularly Body Art and Death: The Last Taboo. Adults over the age of 60 did not expect to attend the exhibition. In contrast, adults aged between 18 and 35 were much more likely to expect to attend the exhibition. Adults aged between 45 and 60 also expressed high levels of interest in attending the exhibition. There were also gender differences, with women somewhat more likely to indicate that they would come to see an exhibition on this subject than men.

The majority of AM visitors surveyed (96%) indicated they felt that it would be appropriate for the Australian Museum to display this exhibition. The appropriateness was sometimes judged in the context of recent AM exhibitions and several people said that an exhibition on torture was as appropriate as an exhibition on death or body art. Some respondents also felt that the Museum would treat the topic of torture with respect and avoid being sensational. This contributed to the sense that the Australian Museum would be an appropriate venue for the exhibition. The primary concern raised when respondents considered the appropriateness of this exhibition was that it was not appropriate for children and they felt it would be appropriate to display the exhibition if there was an age limit or warning.

Exhibition Content
The majority of AM visitors surveyed (52%) did not feel that this exhibition was relevant to Australian society today. They did not see this as detrimental to the exhibition or their interest in it. A third (34%) saw it as relevant. A number of these respondents mentioned that it related to topics such as detention centres and the treatment of Indigenous people in Australia and suggested that the exhibition could address these topics.

Most respondents felt that this exhibition should convey a general anti-torture message. It was expected that the exhibition would have some educational elements, so that visitors could learn about the mistakes of the past and be encouraged to prevent abuses of human rights occurring in the future. Three themes emereged. First, it was suggested that the exhibition should contrast practices in the past with those of the present. People felt that the exhibition could be related to our society today through showing the benefits we have, such as freedom of speech. Some of these people felt that it would be interesting to see how the past abuses of human rights have helped to shape society today, for example by influencing our legal system. This message was seen to be positive, as it would highlight how lucky we are in current Australian society.

Second, other respondents felt that the exhibition should be linked to the present, and that this should be done through showing that torture still exists in the modern world. These people felt that the exhibition would educate visitors about the current practices of torture. They also saw that the exhibition could have a more positive message by showing the people and organisations who are working against torture in the modern world.

Finally, some respondents felt that the exhibition should have a more historical message. The exhibition was seen as educating through showing what happened and who it happened to. Some also felt that the exhibition would reveal what people were capable of doing to each other. When asked, nearly all participants surveyed indicated that they felt an important component of the exhibition would be to include a section focusing on the way forward. This was conceived as including information about human rights activists and ways in which the use of torture could be prevented in the future. Respondents saw this as an essential part of the exhibition as it would be a way to connect the exhibition to the present and also educate visitors on how to prevent the practice of torture in the future.

Concerns
The primary concern of respondents from all age groups was that children should not be able to access the exhibition freely. Most respondents who raised this as a concern felt that there should be a warning on the exhibition regarding its content and a recommended age limit. They also felt that there should be a staff member monitoring the entrance so that children or families could not inadvertently enter. A number of people indicated that the contents of the exhibition could be educational for children, particularly if they visited with their parents. These respondents felt that parental discretion should be used in deciding whether or not children could be allowed in the exhibition. Parents interviewed at the Museum were divided about whether they would take their own children to the exhibition and some thought that their children would love the exhibition. This response did not appear to relate to the age of the children being discussed.

The second major concern raised by museum visitors was a fear that the exhibition may be too graphic and have disturbing depictions of violence. Several people who expressed this concern said it was not a personal concern but may affect other people. Others indicated that this was not a problem, because the exhibition would be showing events that actually occurred therefore the depictions would not be gratuitous.

A further concern was that certain groups in society may be offended by the exhibition. This was particularly perceived to be a problem if the exhibition addressed the persecution of minorities (e.g. Protestants or Jews) through torture. Respondents emphasised the need to address these issues with sensitivity.

Finally, a substantial number of respondents said that there was nothing about the exhibition that concerned them. When this statement was followed up, most of these people indicated that they meant that they thought there was nothing that the exhibition could display that would prevent them from deciding to attend.

For more about the All About Evil exhibition read our blog and join our Facebook group.

2 comments

Lynda Kelly - 1.12 PM, 18 December 2009

Thanks for your comment Jan. I do remember seeing those images and it was a really fascinating contextual piece. What I loved about the research reported here was how  visitors strongly believe that this Museum (and others) are good places to address contentious and often difficult topics with respect and sensitivity. This was also a strong finding from the Exhibitions as Contested Sites research project.

Jan Barnett - 10.12 AM, 18 December 2009
I viewed this exhibition in San Gimignano in 2003 when we were considering taking it. I agree with the research that it had a very strong anti-torture message. The exhibition was mounted both inside a designated building and in an external garden which I felt softened the effect of some of the torture instruments.

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