Q&A with Thomas Elliott

Eleanor Mills, 12.06.2018
Surgeons’ Hall Museum shines new light on collection with first artist’s residency
The eyes of an artist can often shine new light on historic collections, and this is exactly what Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh recently found out via the Chinese contemporary artist, Zhang Yanzi.
Her resulting exhibition, A Quest for Healing, draws comparisons between European and Chinese medical history. As the first artist's residency that the venue has held, the experience has kickstarted a new way of working that the museum can build on in future.

The head of museum learning and interpretation, Thomas Elliott, explains how Zhang Yanzi’s residency and exhibition came about.
How did the residency take shape?

Though we have worked with several artists over the years on a small scale, this is our first residency and the first full exhibition we’ve devoted to a contemporary artist. Gallerie Ora-Ora in Hong Kong, who work closely with the artist, Zhang Yanzi, initially got in touch with a proposal to our director of heritage, Chris Henry, who is always looking for opportunities to engage new audiences.

As Yanzi’s work deals with themes of wellness, healing and health and is interested in the crossover between eastern and western traditions it seemed like a perfect and natural fit. Yanzi flew over from Bejing for a week-long residency in July 2017 in preparation for her exhibition. During this time she explored the museum, library and archives and spoke to staff in order to get a full understanding of our collections.
In what ways has she responded to your medical collections?

We were very keen for the show to include work directly inspired by our collections, and Yanzi has produced two new works, Capillaries and Secret Path, both of which were inspired by a student notebook from 1881-82 of David Middleton Greig that contained meticulously detailed drawings made during his lectures.

Greig became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and also became a conservator of Surgeons’ Hall Museum later in life. These works also reference the corrosion casts we have on display in the museum, an anatomical technique often used to highlight the layout of blood vessels.
Do you have a personal favourite?

I particularly like Secret Path, which has a real dynamic 3D quality due to the layers of silk painting and the shadows cast by the acupuncture needles. Maybe subconsciously I’m also biased as the corrosion casts I mentioned have been a real favourite of mine for many years. Yanzi’s 65m silk-painted banner, entitled Qi, is also pretty spectacular, and hung in one of our spaces where our historical collection is on show.
Has this residency shed new light on Surgeons' Hall's collection?

Although our library and archive staff were well aware of Grieg’s notebook, for many of us in the museum it was the first time we had seen it and, as often happens, it is only when time is spent going through the pages in some detail that the hidden gems are revealed, in this case Greig’s beautiful illustrations.
Is this the first of many residencies? And if so, will you continue to pursue cross-cultural work?

We deal with many research enquiries and do our best to facilitate these, whether from students, historians or artists. Following the success of Yanzi’s show, we’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for future opportunities, whether cross-cultural or cross-disciplinary.
Will Yanzi's work have a legacy at the museum after the show closes in November?

We will not have any material legacy, but in terms of engaging a different audience and raising the profile of the museum in the art world I’m sure this exhibition will help inspire us to continue looking at new avenues of audience engagement in all sorts of different ways.
The space the show is in has been newly refurbished to house temporary exhibitions – what can we expect to see next?

Following the close of Yanzi’s show in November, we will be putting on an exhibition around the inspiring story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, set up by Elsie Inglis during WWI. Part of this will be the responses of two local artists who have been researching our archives which contain journals from women who worked on the frontline.

A Quest for Healing is on at Surgeons' Hall until 4 November.