Body Art in Museums

I attended a thought provoking lecture by Dr Matt Lodder on Victorian trends in tattooing yesterday. Matt stressed that the idea that tattooing is ‘a new fad’ is itself very old. The British royal family, including King George V, had Japanese tattoos. During the 1890s it was quite the fashionable thing amongst the upper classes. It was also much commented upon by the tabloid press of the time. Here is a link to an online article by Matt which does a bit of myth busting http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/01/myths-about-tattoos

The talk got me thinking about body arts in museums as a topic for museum studies students. One of the lecture slides showed an image of an ‘object’ from a museum which was a tattoo on the original skin. There are several examples of ethnographic objects which occupy this murky territory, being both human remains and art objects, and they raise interesting ethical and philosophical questions. From a collecting viewpoint body arts also unsettle object focussed techniques, as much of it is transitory and you can’t (for practical and ethical reasons) collect a body with its skin and hair. Matt and his fellow researchers use photography, diaries, paintings and newspaper articles to understand the history of tattooing and exhibitions of body art increasingly do the same.

When I was still a student I did some audience evaluation with the, then new, Body Arts display in the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford. I was struck by how a discussion of the decoration of the human body unsettled certain ‘safe’ categories and engaged people in active debate. It’s an amazing topic for museums because the body is universal, but ways of shaping and viewing bodies are so varied. The Pitt Rivers dealt with the collecting issues by engaging in a bit of contemporary collecting with a tattoo parlour in Oxford and have included videos on the website: http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/bodyarts/

As a discussion point in class it can be uncomfortable. Many people don’t think they have any body art because they don’t have a large tattoo but hairstyle, perfume, make-up, ear piercings all count. Questioning how your own body is constructed can feel quite unsettling, but that’s what makes it such a great topic for debate.

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