Facing madness: The ethics of exhibiting sensitive historical photographs

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In a research context of ever-widening public engagement, we are facing new ethical questions about the presentation of sensitive historical material. This paper explores the complex ethical negotiations faced by researchers when sensitive visual material is presented in museums and galleries. I explore this in relation to a recent exhibition on the history of a mental hospital which displayed portraits of patients from the early twentieth century. I consider how we might navigate a dual responsibility both to the privacy and confidentiality of long dead patients and their relatives with a commitment to challenge the myths and stigma surrounding histories of mental health. I conclude by suggesting that there are both opportunities and risks involved in the translation of research into exhibitions. For researchers, museums offer more creative forms of mitigation to help navigate the risks of exploiting vulnerable groups. However, ethical calculations need to take place in context, and considering the lives of the dead, the living and the imagined.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-50
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Historical Geography
Early online date16 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2021


  • Ethics
  • Mental health
  • Museums
  • Photography


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