May 01 2017

Spit Spreads Death: The expression of cultural DNA: art, history, and storytelling

Last week, Curator of the Present Tense of the Peabody Essex Museum and Arts Curator for the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage Discovery Grant Trevor Smith shared his insight into the development of Spit Spreads Death, an exhibit coming to the Mütter in 2018.

In discussions of the project, Trevor has used the term “cultural DNA,” a concept that helps clarify the exhibit team’s approach. Here, he elaborates on that term, providing insight into cultural connections, memes, and the Mutter’s multidisciplinary focus.

At the Peabody Essex Museum, (PEM) I have chosen to work with artists whose work emerges from the intersections of cultures or bodies of knowledge. I think such connections have long been the seedbed of innovation and social change. It connects what I like to call the museum’s DNA, which is rooted in such encounters, to our contemporary world.

In this context, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot turned a gallery into a walk-in aviary with zebra finches playing electric guitars. Candice Breitz traveled to Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Lagos to explore the culture of child actors in the three great centers of the global film industry. Charles Sandison projected animated text from ships logs and sailors’ journals into a beautiful, neoclassical room that held some of the original objects collected by PEM. Last year, we produced a national tour of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests.; his work symbolizes how creativity can move fluidly across the disciplines of art, science and storytelling.

I think that every cultural expression has its own set of DNA. This is roughly what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins would describe as memes. Memes operate culturally not unlike how genes express in biology. They are creative and mimetic practices that transmit ideas and forms from one mind to another or one culture to another. Like genes, memes are always in the process of being remixed and repurposed.

I think the most interesting contexts to work are ones which have been engaged with specific histories and mimetic transmissions. In the museum where I work, I see many memes that relate to the intersections of cultures and disciplines. The Mütter channels vectors such as technology, the body, and medical practices. Both institutions have deep potential for contemporary culture because of (and not in spite of) the seemingly archaic forms of knowledge they contain.

In the case of Spit Spreads Death, we hope to merge the analytical drive of the historical and scientific thought with the more speculative dimension of artistic or creative expression. Of course, Jane E. Boyd, the historical curator of the project is enormously creative, and I am deeply interested in history, but I think this openness to merging different forms of thought is very important to the project.

Spit Spreads Death: Going Viral Behind the Scenes

We’re inviting you to get an exclusive view of the Mütter Museum and see an exhibit that doesn’t exist…yet! Follow along as we explore, research, and develop a new centerpiece exhibition. We'll give you access to behind-the-scenes discussions, artifacts, and interviews with key curators and artists.

This unique project will be a unique collaboration, incorporating contemporary art with medical history, joining together an artist, an art curator, and a historical curator. The exhibition is planned for 2019, in commemoration of the centennial of the devastating medical event that plagued Philadelphia in the early 20th century, and will integrate science, history, art, and personal narratives while exploring contagion, fear of infection, compassion for fellow citizens, and the behavior of a population under extreme stress.

The Mütter Museum helps the public appreciate the mysteries and beauty of the human body while understanding the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.

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