There are some stories you read in the press that you immediately react to as a curator. For me recently it was reading about the first UK Service of Dedication for lives lost to eating disorders that took place at Southwark Cathedral.
Sensing an acquisition in sight, I contacted b-eat – a UK charity for people with eating disorders – to get hold of a copy of the Order of Service.
Eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are such prevalent mental health problems – affecting 1.6 million people in the UK alone – yet such experiences are barely documented through material culture at all.
Part of the problem is that there might not be any objects to collect. Can we document mental health experiences (depression for example) when they seemingly aren’t embodied in objects or expressed through stuff?
Why collect objects to represent such illnesses anyway?
With an anthropological hat on, documenting experiences and reactions to eating disorders reveals a lot about us as a society – the significance of food and health, perceptions of beauty, and how our bodies respond to stress.
Historically, how societies have treated self-starvation is fascinating. Apollonia Schreier, a German woman, was credited with almost mystical abilities after refusing food for 11 months.
Of course we can’t treat such experiences as ‘Anorexia’ – the condition didn’t medically exist until the late nineteenth century. But by documenting historical and contemporary experiences through material culture, we can perhaps understand a little better why we treat illnesses today as we do.
Perhaps not all human experiences can be told through objects. Yet, I’d argue that material culture has a unique ability to connect you to stories and experiences even at a glance – so I think it’s worth a bit of lateral thinking.
Anyway, here’s a few other objects we could collect on the topic: size zero clothing, the personal effects of an individual who’s experienced an eating disorder (perhaps their weighing scale or diary for instance), self-help manuals, health education material etc. Other thoughts, suggestions or insights most welcome.