In this review Dr Nicolas Marquis (Université Paris-Descartes, France, and the Université Saint Louis, Belgium) reflects on his visit to the Hearing Voices exhibition at Palace Green Library, which is running until 26 February 2017. Nicolas has previously written about mental health and autonomy for Hearing the Voice.
The Hearing Voices: suffering, inspiration, and the everyday exhibition offers a lot of satisfaction to anybody interested in the fascinating issue and experience of voice hearing. This event was even more intriguing for me as a visitor and anthropologist from Belgium — not only did it seem like I was crossing countries to visit the exhibition, but also worldviews.
Visitors can observe in the gallery of the Palace Green Library a range of very interesting and sometimes moving cultural artifacts that bear a relation to hearing voices. These include a collection of (very) ancient books, “therapeutic” tools, handcrafted objects, paintings, and handwritten letters from famous authors.
One will be thrilled by the diversity of ways that the experience of hearing voices is conveyed to the visitor — not only scrutinizing historical pieces, but also listening to narratives through a telephone waiting to be picked up, hearing a voice that seemingly speaks from nowhere (actually from a sound system above) while you watch a visual clip by Samuel Beckett, being immersed in the testimonies of voice hearers, using a computer to learn how voice hearing networks are spreading worldwide, being disturbed by examples of historical strong clothing that were previously used in an asylum, or inspired by artwork produced by young people as they represent what hearing voices means to them.
All of this undoubtedly required an impressive amount of research and preparation, but the feature that makes this exhibition unique and exceptional is the “tone” through which voice hearing is presented.
Voice hearing can be a touchy subject, as with experiences of mental health more broadly, and can often provoke moral and sometimes polemic positions — if you aren’t supporting the hearing voices movement, then you are framed as despising them; if you are taking this matter seriously and listening to what voice-hearers say about their experiences, then you can’t pretend to be a real scientist; if you are not using ‘empirical’ categories that are common in psychiatry, then you are against therapy. The list goes on. The organizers behind Hearing Voices are indeed familiar with these tensions, and they did a commendable job in showcasing the diversity of standpoints surrounding voice hearing. The exhibition manages to bridge together art and science, voices from experts by experience and from scholars, analytic distance and moral commitment. It makes voice hearing a familiar part of the everyday by allowing one to enter the intimate worlds of voice-hearers, but without any sense of voyeurism.
As an overseas visitor, what struck me the most in the overall tone of this exhibition was the way voice-hearing is simultaneously presented as an extraordinary and an ordinary experience. This makes the subtitle of the exhibition — suffering, inspiration and the everyday — particularly fitting. In closing, I would suggest that the word order of the subtitle does not reflect a specific relation to how these themes are promoted in the exhibition. Rather than focusing on voice hearing as an experience of unease, anxiety or of despair, we see this phenomenon as a creative aspect of life. Not as something abnormal, but as something different. Not as something less, but as something more.