April 21 2017

Spit Spreads Death: Using contemporary art to interpret a century-old epidemic

Trevor Smith, curator of the present tense at the Peabody Essex Museum, has partnered with the Mütter Museum to help develop our upcoming exhibit, Spit Spreads Death. We’ve asked him to share what brought him to working on this project and how the exhibit team came to choose artist collective Blast Theory to interpret the epidemic for a modern audience.


How did you come to be involved with the Mütter? Why are you interested in working on this project? 

I take pleasure in working with artists in non-traditional spaces, as well as museums with a strong sense of history, which Peter Nesbitt, formerly of the PEW, knew well. For several years now, I have been the Curator of the Present Tense at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Founded in 1799 by the first generation of global entrepreneurs in the United States, PEM is the country’s longest continuingly-operating museum. Its ambition is to present experiences of art, culture, and creative expressions that transform people’s lives. It’s a very ambitious and special place.

The Mütter and their visionary director Robert Hicks had already successfully commissioned an extraordinary film by the Quay Brothers that was supported by the PEW. Peter offered me the chance to build on that legacy by exploring how the Mütter might work with artists in a way that integrated their creative expressions more closely with the museum’s curatorial work. I felt a kinship with these ambitions and feel strongly that museums with such extraordinary historical legacies can play an inspirational and critical role in contemporary culture.


How did you come to select Blast Theory as the artists to engage for this exhibit? Why bring contemporary, likely interactive art into a 19th-century medical museum?

As we thought about what kind of artist we wanted to work with, it seemed clear that we needed someone who was deeply invested in telling stories. Even with an event of world historical significance such as the global flu pandemic, there are vanishingly few people alive with direct experience. So, how do you make their experience emotionally palpable for contemporary audiences? There are many people whose parents, aunts and uncles were directly impacted, their family lore traced in photographs, objects, and stories. There are remarkable historical documents that Jane has been sharing with us.

Even with all this material to hand and the staggering statistics associated with the pandemic, it felt like a contemporary artist could imaginatively bridge the gap between 1918 and today. We set out to interview three different artists whose work we admired greatly and who offered three distinctive approaches to narrative.

We chose Blast Theory because we were excited by the different ways their fundamentally interactive work manifests. Their projects have drawn from theater, performance art, installation, game design, mobile devices, public interventions, and so forth. Their participatory work has often engaged substantive social issues and imagined connections through time – both past and future.


What are you hoping the public to take away from the exhibit, not just about the flu and pandemics, but about the role of contemporary art in reinterpreting events of enduring historical significance?

There is a long history of artists reinterpreting events of enduring historical significance. This is what historical painting was about in the 18th and 19th centuries; think of Goya’s Third of May 1808 or Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. In the early 19th-century painting was the lens through which an emerging public imaginatively entered the historical picture.

In contemporary art, with the primary imaging of world events largely taken over by the news media, artists often offer a counter-narrative, or comment on the construction of history. Think of Chris Burden’s Other Vietnam War Memorial in which the names of millions of Vietnamese people killed in the Vietnam War are etched onto a rotating set of copper panels (like a giant Tibetan prayer wheel), a response to highlight the unrepresented causalities in Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial in Washington. Today’s artists work in so many different ways to reinterpret history, however, that it is too vast summarize here.


Since January, have you had any discussions with Matt about how his concept for the exhibit is coming together? Is there anything you can share at this point?

Intuitively it feels like there is great potential to be using game design in some way. Game theory, with its roots in the study of probability, seems to hold great potential for thinking about a subject like pandemics—how they might start, who is impacted, who survives and who dies. We are really at the start of all this so we are all excited to explore further and see how the project evolves!

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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