University of Leicester led project Exceptional and Extraordinary will tour nationally to museums with medical collections throughout June 2016

New project initiated and led by Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at University of Leicester

  • New commissions announced: unique film, dance, performance and comedy commissions that draw on museum collections to explore our problematic attitudes towards difference.
  • Exceptional and Extraordinary will tour nationally to museums with medical collections throughout June 2016.
  • Download a leaflet detailing all performances here.

LEICESTER, 18-May-2016 — /EuropaWire/ — Following Mat Fraser’s astonishing and award-winning commission Cabinet of Curiosities that toured UK museums in 2015, Exceptional & Extraordinary invited four artists – dance company Deaf Men Dancing led by choreographer Mark Smith, film-maker David Hevey, comedianFrancesca Martinez, artist and playwright Julie McNamara – to explore behind the scenes of eight of the UK’s most renowned museums with medical collections – the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS); the Science Museum; the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds; the Royal London Hospital Museum and Archives; Surgeons’ Hall Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; Museum of the Mind; and Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability.

Initiated and led by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, Exceptional and Extraordinary is a collaborative project with experts in medical history, disability and museums including Tony Heaton, SHAPE and Katherine Ott, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Each artist has produced provocative new work that examines our attitudes towards difference and stimulates debate around the implications of a society that values some lives more than others.


Let Us Tell You A Story… is a new, highly original, multi-sensory dance production by Deaf Men Dancing (DMD) – known for their unique fusion of different styles of dance with sign language – that invites audiences on a journey to explore Deaf history and experiences of deafness in an entirely new way. Devised and choreographed by DMD’s Artistic Director, Mark Smith, the performance has been inspired by his investigations of medical museum collections that contain hundreds of objects – from exquisite ear trumpets to conspicuously large hearing aid boxes – and the extraordinary untold stories of the people and events, the innovations and technologies that have shaped Deaf experience and identity through time.


The Fight for Life

In a world of less, some people in the UK are at the sharp end of biomedical decisions: from assisted-dying debates to machines for prolonging lives, who gets the privileges, opportunities and choices and who gets the cuts is a hotly contested issue. In this powerful, unsettling and provocative film, David Hevey examines the increasingly hostile and uncertain world in which many disabled people find themselves. Disproportionately targeted by cuts in public funding and subject to social, political and medical attitudes towards difference that have far reaching, often pernicious consequences, disabled people increasingly face questions around just who is – and who isn’t – worth the biomedical resources and technology to live longer and empowered lives.


Francesca Martinez’s Wobbly Manifesto

Without diversity, there would be no evolution, no life, no human beings. So why are we still so damn scared of difference? As a species, we’ve put people on the moon, created computers that fit in our pockets and developed complex machines that zoom us all over the world but, put someone ‘different’ in front of us and, well, most of us still get a bit sweaty, awkward and stutter-y. No surprise, really, as our culture teaches us to fear difference, both in ourselves and others – and disability is perhaps the most terrifying of all. Despite being part of the human race since the days when we lived in caves and grunted a lot, disability is still seen as ‘abnormal’, tragic, and undesirable. But what if we… gulp, celebrated difference instead of rejecting it? With the help of museum collections, Francesca explores how humanity has chosen to handle (or not) disability over the decades and looks at how these attitudes have huge ramifications for all of us. By proposing her own Wobbly Manifesto, she invites us all to consider how embracing diversity as normal could, in fact, revolutionise the world we live in.


Hold the Hearse! is an interactive, extraordinary theatrical journey through a myriad of museum collections that have impacted on the lives of the Mad, the Bad and the Unruly in our midst. This comic tale, inspired by objects and stories from behind the scenes of some of the UK’s most renowned medical museums, takes us through the history of two remarkable characters who evaded the collectors – complete with grime, gruesome grave robberies and grisly murder ballads. In this extraordinary production, Julie McNamara – who describes herself as ‘a Mad woman made good’ – brings previously hidden and disavowed lives to light and, in doing so, invites audiences to question our collective attitudes towards difference.

The subsequent ticketed performances and film will tour throughout June 2016 to all eight partner museums, with different groupings of the commissions so that every performance is unique to each venue and with many of the performances supported by after-show discussion panels with invited experts as well as opportunities to view and handle some of the objects that have inspired the artists.

Funded through a Large Arts Award by the Wellcome Trust and a Grants for the Arts award from Arts Council England, Exceptional & Extraordinary is an ambitious project that aims to engage visitors to all the partner museums, professionals in the field of biomedicine and the broader public in a reassessment of widely held assumptions surrounding physical and mental difference, disability and contemporary (often negative and discriminatory) attitudes towards disabled people.

The commissions will offer new ways of seeing that will be used to question and stimulate public, biomedical professional and media debate around the social, cultural and ethical implications of medicalised ways of understanding difference that pervade biomedical professional practice as well as shape broader public and societal attitudes towards disability and disabled people.

For further information, a range of images and interviews please contact Catharine Braithwaite at

Notes to editors:

Tour dates

7 June Julie McNamara Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability, Normansfield

8 June Julie McNamara and David Hevey Royal College of Surgeons of England, London

13 June Julie McNamara and David Hevey Royal College of Physicians of England, London

14 June Deaf Men Dancing Thackray Medical Museum

15 June David Hevey and Deaf Men Dancing Surgeons’ Hall Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

17 June Julie McNamara Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Beckenham

18 June Francesca Martinez Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds

20 June Francesca Martinez and Deaf Men Dancing Royal College of Physicians, London

21 June Julie McNamara and David Hevey Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds

22 June Francesca Martinez and Deaf Men Dancing Royal College of Surgeons of England, London

23 June David Hevey Royal London Hospital Museum & Archive, London (invitation only)

29 June Francesca Martinez and Deaf Men Dancing The Science Museum, London

More about the commissioned artists:

Mark Smith is the founder and artistic director for Deaf Men Dancing, an innovative all male dance company, who, like Mark, are deaf. Together they have created a fusion of dance styles that incorporate sign language, creating an original aesthetic. DMD have performed internationally including DanceEast’s 1st Anniversary Gala, E4’s Battlefront, London’s 2012 Deaf Day, Candoco’s 20th Anniversary cabaret, Brighton Festival and Clin de’Oeil Deaf Art International Festival, France. DMD was commissioned by Greenwich + Dockland International Festival to create a new work called TEN that was premiered at National Paralympic Day featuring Mayor of London’s Liberty Festival 2014. Mark was invited by Sadler’s Wells Theatre to premiere DMD’s new work called Hear! Hear! at =dance. Commissioned by Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt – Artistic Directors of Ballet Boyz, Mark choreographed a short film, My Silent World, where he collaborated with film director Luke Aherne for Channel 4’s Random Acts. In 2015, Live Theatre UK awarded Mark best choreographer for The Who’s Tommy. Visit Deaf Men Dancing

Unafraid of controversial subjects, David Hevey is one of the UK’s most original media professionals working out of the UK today. Internationally recognized, the Huffington Post recently described David Hevey as ‘one of the leading documentary makers of a generation’.  His output is prolific and he creatively directs across television, film, digital and other forms. His premise is simple – good stories, well told, with a purpose – to create impactful, compelling reflections about the way we live now.  David uses journalism, performance, documentary, sung-narration and other devices to take the viewer deeper into understanding and feeling stories about our world now. His work is characterised by his inclusive approach, including engagement of and working with people and stories from the margins. He wrote The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography & Disability Representation (Routledge), produced and directed the BBC series, The Disabled Century (2012) and has directed three BBC TV Modern Times documentaries. Visit

Francesca Martinez is an award-winning wobbly comedian, actress, writer and campaigner. Since winning the Open Mic Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2000, she has toured the world and appeared in TV shows such as ‘Live At The Apollo’, ‘The Jonathan Ross Show’ and ‘Extras’. Her first book ‘What The **** Is Normal’ was published in 2014 to critical acclaim and was nominated for two national book awards. She has recently supported Frankie Boyle on his UK tour, and is currently working on several BBC and theatre commissions. An active campaigner, she is also involved with the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, the War On Welfare petition, and has helped organise the UK-wide JC4PM Tour in support of Jeremy Corbyn. Visit Francesca Martinez

Julie McNamara is an award winning playwright and theatre maker. Her work investigates the extraordinary stories of voices hidden in the margins of our communities. Artistic Director of Vital Xposure, her work is renowned for its’ strong narratives and bold visual aesthetic that places access at the heart of the story. Recent work has included the internationally acclaimed: ‘Let Me Stay’, a unique story of living well with dementia and a love letter to the artist’s mother.  An activist in Disability Arts and vociferous spokeswoman for mental health system survivors, she describes herself as ‘A Mad Woman made good’. Visit Vitalxposure

Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) has extensive experience of researching disability history and museums through a series of projects (funded by the AHRC’s Innovation Awards schemes, NESTA, Heritage Lottery Fund, Wellcome Trust, Arts Council England) carried out over the last 15 years. RCMG was recognized in the most recent UK wide Research Excellence Framework (2014) as producing research that was world leading in its impact beyond the academy, shaping professional thinking and practice and tackling prejudice and discrimination towards disabled people. In 2014, a research project led by Jocelyn Dodd and Richard Sandell culminated in the performance, Cabinet of Curiosities by Mat Fraser which as well being critically acclaimed also received The Observer Ethical Award for Arts and Culture.

Museum partners

This project brings together organisations with track records in innovative public engagement and an exciting blend of expertise in medical collections, the history of medicine, disability history and representations of disability within public history settings, museum ethics and public engagement with scientific and social issues. The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS); the Science Museum; the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), Thackray Museum, Leeds; Royal London Hospital Museum and Archives; Surgeons’ Hall Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; Museum of the Mind; Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability all hold extraordinary collections and bring rich expertise in medical history, community health, history of disability as well as a commitment to pursuing new ways of engaging audiences in debating biomedical science through the arts.

SHAPE is the disability-led arts organisation working to improve access to culture for disabled people. Visit Shape Arts

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. They support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine.

Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. It support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better.


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