“Can you feel a bump there?” certainly isn’t a question you’d expect to be asked arriving at Barts Pathology Museum on a Thursday night. Although, if there’s anything to be taken from this event – led by QMUL’s Centre for the History of the Emotions – it’s that there’s no point having expectations of anything.
This question was one of three tests put to everyone entering the pop-up ‘Museum of Normal’. Specifically, with one hand to their forehead in a test of phrenology, the outmoded study of skull shape and personality. Unsurprisingly, few people found this bump, apparently making them abnormal by late 19th Century standards. However, event-runners were quick to assure: “You’ll soon find everyone’s abnormal here”.
Some of the first activities supported this sentiment, offering old tests of normality as varied as ink blot tests and arm span measurement. One stall-runner demonstrated a particularly creepy plate of model eyeballs, set into eye-shaped holes in the metal. We found ourselves awkwardly looking from the eyeball selection to the eyes of a volunteer to compare the colour – she thought he was a nine, I thought four was closer, we eventually settled for my choice.
Perhaps the greatest moment of self-realisation on offer at the Museum was the snacks. Freeze-dried chilli-flavoured grasshoppers were available to try, and although they generally tasted like a less crunchy Bombay mix, the amount of visitors struggling to eat them demonstrated the real power of social conditioning: there was no reason not to eat the bugs. Being told that around 80% of the world use insects as their main source of protein really hit home that struggling to have a couple of mealworms is more abnormal than normal.
If you wanted a break from the bizarreness of it all – then you could have a sit down and enjoy a cocktail based on one of the four humours. ‘Sanguine’ was Bloody Mary-esque, ‘Melancholia’ was suitably full of bitterness with espresso and dark rum, and so on. Although the break (for me personally) only brought the epiphany that enjoying a cocktail surrounded by various medical specimens, which were also physical abnormalities, was incredibly abnormal.
This was the truly brilliant thing about The Museum of Normal, the venue and pop-up stalls blended into one. Anachronisms haunted the evening: from the clash of NHS signage and Victorian buildings on the way in; to a room decked out with a 60’s tape player and blinding white light; Freudian textbooks; a carnival theme. All contributed to an overall educational and surreal experience that gave extensive food for thought on the irrelevance of normal – especially with the perspective of time in mind.
The Museum of Normal is just one part of the ‘Being Human Festival’ rolled out across the country in late November annually. QMUL’s History for the Centre of the Emotions has become something of a forerunner in leading events for the festival, and they have plenty more tricks up their sleeve.
Similar events can be found at: