Index on Censorship carried out a series of interviews with a range of stakeholders including the staff and trustees. Here are some extracts:
Cathie Pilkington, RA – artist, co-curator of Eric Gill: The Body.
There are different kinds of risk to this [commission]. I felt I had to go with that initial intuitive response, my genuine engagement with the doll [carved by Gill for his daughter’s 4th birthday] and with the dilemma. As an artist you have to trust those drives towards things, even though they are risky. Quite a few people said, don’t do this, don’t put yourself in this dilemma, you are making yourself vulnerable and actually there is part of that you are being used as a resource to mediate something. But I recognised it as well and I knew that I was the right artist to do this regardless of the difficulties that I might have. I came away [from the workshop] very excited and elated by realising that there was a moral responsibility of the artist to allow these things to happen and for speech to be open. It was exciting to see a real role for art. It as as much about that, as the subject of the abuse and the problems associated with the project.
Alice Purkiss – leader of Trusted Source Knowledge Transfer Partnership between Oxford’s History Faculty and the National Trust (2016-2018)
They told the story with utmost sensitivity but without censorship and I think that was an important factor. It wasn’t salacious which it could have been. It wasn’t accusatory. It was quite frank and objective and I was interested in their use of language in the show. A lot of colleagues will see this as an opportunity to see what goes into the process – more will have the confidence to do this themselves.
Andrew Comben – Director of Brighton Festival and board member
Collectively and Nathaniel particularly managed it brilliantly, sensitively thoughtfully and patiently. It felt like a textbook example of how to navigate all this territory. I am also interested now in hearing that museum professionals see it as a sort of blueprint of how to manage sensitive issues. Embedding a journalist in the process and having someone follow that right from the start so there could be a public conversation and an honest one I thought was very smart. Talking to charities working in the territory, not of the arts world was something all too frequently arts organisation don’t do. [Ref partnership with Brighton Festival] It seems something really obvious and quite straightforward, that maybe organisations don’t have to go it alone when they addressing these sorts of things and there is strength in a collective response.
From Rachel Cooke’s detailed account published in The Observer before the show opened: Eric Gill: can we separate the artist from the abuser?
“Hepburn’s decision to mount Eric Gill: The Body might be thought rather brave – and certainly this is the word I hear repeatedly from those who support his project… But still, I wonder. Is it courageous, or is it merely foolhardy? And what consequences will it have in the longer run both for Gill’s work and those institutions that are its guardians? Is it possible that Hepburn, in fighting his own museum’s “self-censorship”, will start a ripple effect that ultimately will see more censorship elsewhere, rather than less? And once Gill is dispensed with, where do we go next? Where does this leave, say, artists such as Balthus and Hans Bellmer? Even if their private lives were less reprehensible than Gill’s, their work – that of Balthus betrays a fixation on young girls, while Bellmer is best known for his lifesize pubescent dolls – is surely far more unsettling.”
Peter Saunders – NPAC
They were bold in saying that whilst he was an artist and produced works of some significance he also admitted to some extremely nasty crimes against his own children. I felt positive with their approach. When we are talking about something that goes back quite a long time and there are no living victims of these people, then it is slightly different from dealing with someone who is uncovered as being a current abuser and thereby is likely to have living victims who will still be living with the trauma probably and of what had been done to them by the individuals. It therefore calls for a slightly different approach. My opinion is that if we were to actually delve into the lives of many people of prominence from the past we would potentially uncover some pretty unpleasant stuff I expect. Does that change the quality or significance of what they contributed to the arts or whatever it was? Or do we ignore it, do we acknowledge it or sweep it under the carpet?
Alison McLeod – writer in residence
There doesn’t seem to be one point of view on it, the more I looked into the more complex it became, and my own point of view is irrelevant in a sense, it’s not even what guides the writing project. Yes, the biography is upsetting disturbing in part and there was clearly a history of abuse that is without question. But it is made slightly more complex by the fact that the two daughters were abused said they were unembarrassed about it, not angry about it, loved their father, and didn’t give the response that perhaps I’m imagining, or some people expected them to give – to be angry about it and condemn their father’s behaviour. They didn’t. So maybe they have internalised their trauma, but you could say that that response is almost patronising to the two women, the elderly women who were very clear about what they felt, so it goes into a loop of paradoxes of riddles that you cannot really ever solve.
Nathaniel Hepburn speaking three weeks into the process.
I have underestimated the emotional strain on the team that delivering this project, and continuing to deliver it for the next four months, has caused and will continue to cause and the amount of time needed to hold the team through that process. We are looking out for each other and that is going to have to continue. Although we have put in place everything that was needed I think it will continue to be an issue for the next four months. That we cannot quite switch off. I am really lucky to have a great, supportive team and that we will be OK.
So many of the things we [DMAC staff] put into place, structures, approaches which we talked about and rehearsed and gone over and over, language, openness and confidence in being open about it, willingness to engage, not justifying, or defending, or shutting down – all those things – I have seen them played out.
The Founder of NAPAC came to talk to the staff about how someone who had been abused would feel about coming to this show. He told his own story and he had been abused. But actually it was good to have a survivor in the room and to hear the incredibly negative impact it had had. Although it was hard, it brought people together.
We didn’t give our own opinions; we were being professional. This is what we are doing and we hope we have done it well. When people knew that it had taken 2 years and we had thought so carefully about it, it helped.
Yes we’ve done it, we’ve done it pretty well and it had to be done and we have put so much in place and so many discussions, such sensitivity about how it was going to be done. Everyone’s voice, concerns and anxieties from members of staff have found a way through into this.
Over the first weekend there were lots of visitors, and positive feedback, good that you’ve done it – rather than beautiful exhibition. There was discussion going on in the café afterwards. More children than expected. Teenage daughters with their mums. That made me feel proud. That’s a good conversation to have, brings the abuse out into the open…
It got more difficult as the show went on – he was on the inside and I got really sick of it by the end – it [the end of the show] is a weight lifted off our shoulders.
We have all had to cover for front of house. It’s exhausting – giving everyone the time and attention they need. The flippant comments, people trying to make light – that was quite difficult to hear again and again.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this – how dare he [Gill] put me in this position every day and think about this, as the mother of a young daughter, but in fact it was very interesting to work.
There was lots of mutual support – helps that it is a small team that gets on. Individuals checking in on each other – backing each other up – we have all had our moments.
Now that we are getting positive responses and level of engagement is really encouraging I feel much more confident about communicating it. The biggest concern would be to get people outside and faced with an anger that is difficult to be rational with. It didn’t happen but there could still be a reaction. 3 weeks in – and I’m trying not to be complacent – I am still prepared. The first week was the most intense – but it has dried up for the past couple of weeks.
After this exhibition, and the learning that we have undertaken as a result, we will reflect on how the permanent collection displays can incorporate this information so that the museum does not turn a blind eye to Gill’s more disturbing biography again.
Reflection – Steph Fuller Artistic Director Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft
A few observations, being on the outside and being recruited while the show was on:
I thought it was a good thing for the museum to do; it was important not to hide from issues. I felt that, within the exhibition, if the public didn’t read all the background material, watch the film and the discussions, they could miss quite a lot of the nuance of what was happening and I thought that was a pity. People in the museums and galleries business, who did read all of that stuff and listened to it and who knew much more about the process [had one kind of experience]. But I think the visitor experience was a bit partial in the museum.
The real legacy issue, which I am grappling with at the moment, is that the voice that was not in the room, was Petra’s. She was very front and centre as far as Cathie’s commission was concerned, but there is something about how the work conflated Petra with the doll and being a child victim, that I’m a bit uncomfortable about actually. There is lots of evidence of Petra’s views about her experiences, and how she internalised them, that was not present at all anywhere. It is easy to project things on to someone being just a victim and Petra would have completely rejected that.
In terms of legacy how we continue to talk about Gill and his child sexual abuse and other sexual activities which were fairly well outside the mainstream, I think – yes acknowledge it, but also – how? I am feeling my way round it at the moment. There are plenty of living people, her children and grandchildren who are protective of her, quite reasonably. I need to feel satisfied that when we speak about Petra, we represent her side of it and we don’t just tell it from the point of view of the abuser, to put it bluntly. If it is about Petra, how do we do it in a way that respects her views and her family’s views?
I feel very much it’s a piece of work that is not done. But the thing to do is to start. It’s much better to do something than to do nothing, then expose the next layer of issues which need to be addressed.
In terms of the staff, I think some of the staff were quite damaged by the experience of having to deal with it, and it would have been good if there had been more psychological, emotional support for staff in place. For most people, they accepted that it was difficult, but it was important and everybody got on with it. But it’s really hard to work with it all the time and I am thinking about doing more internal work for staff, and as new staff come in – this is never going away.
It was quite a high risk thing for the museum to do and for a lot of people who had nurtured the museum over a long time there were concerns about if this was the right thing to do, or the right way to do it. I think quite a few of the trustees breathed a deep sigh of relief when it had happened, that it had been OK; the museum had been recognised and applauded for doing it, much more than people who had thrown bricks at it, and that was a result. We have had to talk round a couple of people in the village who said they would never have anything to do with the museum again – and we managed to lure them back in, this is one aspect of what we are about, but we are still the place you are supportive of.
The exhibition absolutely is informing our future thinking around interpretation and how we tell that narrative about Eric Gill and the Guild, and subsequently. I don’t want it to be the only thing that people ever think about in the context of our content. Gill is very important and an important part of the museum’s story, but there is a huge amount of other stuff and other artists and a much longer history for us. We’ve had a run of shows that have been looking more at women and that’s a sort of balancing act, certainly internally. There is a show coming up when we will be looking at material from our collection. We will need to be some new interpretation and that’s a useful next step, putting in a tangible form the things that have been learned and thought about and mulled over as a result of doing the exhibition.
At the beginning, I asked myself – what is my position on this? In many ways – I don’t feel it is a black and white thing. I love Eric Gill’s work, I loved it before we knew that he was a child sex-abuser, obviously I have known that for a very long time, and, having thought about it a lot, I still feel that the work is interesting and valid. I am able to think about the work in a way that is detached from his behaviour, which is very much not acceptable. Post #MeToo there is a real desire for a binary position: ‘this is wrong’ and therefore everything that has anything to do with it is wrong, and therefore we should whitewash Eric Gill and his work out of our collection, we should never show his work or speak of him again. I think that’s not helpful and makes no sense to remove someone from the narrative, who is really important and influential in art historical and in philosophical terms. We couldn’t talk about what the museum is about without talking about Eric Gill. It’s not doable.
While I have a critique of the work, I I am not in any way critical of Nathaniel doing the show; I think it was a really great thing Nathaniel did to do and very courageous. It was about moving the narrative into the public space and that was the big step. It was done in a way that managed it pretty effectively for the museum, although there have been some very negative responses. Overall, the museum has been respected for doing things in the way they did, even by some people who don’t altogether agree with where it landed. I think there are things that could have been handled differently that might have added some extra layers of complexity in some respects, but maybe you can only deal with so much complexity at once. If I had approached this and done it from scratch, I would have done it in a different way and it would have been flawed in another way – there is never a perfect answer.