We interviewed Christine McNab, curator of The Art of Saving a Life, a collection of stories about how vaccines continue to change the course of history, about her role in the project. GSK decided to sponsor making this special exhibit possible at TEDMED, which brings together a global audience from across disciplines to bridge the gap between science and the public.
How does art to tell the story of vaccines in a different way than other communications media?
I really believe artists see things from entirely new angles – in ways that “traditional” communicators often can’t imagine or express. And when the artist makes the connection through their work, they’re giving us permission to interpret what they are saying – to discuss and debate with one another – to create conversations that might not otherwise happen.
The artist also brings the story from a deeply held place – they are putting their whole selves into the work which is a very brave thing to do. So when they connect with people, they can elicit deep emotions – triggering action, because we act when we feel and care about something. In the case of vaccines, 1 of 5 children in the world still don’t receive the vaccines they need – we need people to connect with those communities, and to take action so that every child can be reached.
Have you ever curated this type of collection before?
No – in the past I’ve worked with photographers, illustrators, filmmakers and graphic designers – and that work has helped to inspire this project. But this is the first time I’ve curated a collection of this size.
What was the most difficult aspect of curating the exhibit and working with 30+ artists?
39 artists took part. Working with the artists was a pleasure – every single person came with a passion for the project and with exciting ideas. It was a joy to receive each of the pieces – to open an email and read a new story by some of the world’s best writers; or see a completed painting, sculpture, photograph or film. I was so impressed by the quality of the work. So, the hardest part was probably the nuts and bolts of issues like licensing, and there was a wonderful team at the Gates Foundation who handled that.
How did audiences respond to the work? Anything especially striking?
People loved it – I think they loved the way there was something there that grabbed them that they could connect with at least one piece in the collection, and often many more. It was fascinating to see how different types of people responded to the same piece – different people would love or dislike the same piece – which is exactly the response we want from artworks. I remember one prominent scientist telling me he disliked one of the works that portrays a classic historical scene in medicine, because he thought the original painting of the scene already told the story – whereas that particular piece (by Alexia Sinclair) was one of the most popular in worldwide media.
What are your aspirations for the future of the exhibit? Is their a part two in the works? Tied to a different medical intervention?
I would love to see The Art of Saving a Life tour the world – to bring it to the big arts centres like Paris, London and New York where it can engage the people who make decisions about development aid, for example, but also to cities in the global south where we want to inspire even more commitment to children’s health. It could also be developed and distributed as a package for school libraries, and for teachers to use as a resource to teach about the ways vaccines have and continue to change the world for the better. I’d also love to see different art pieces available in museum-type gift shops and online – as posters and books families can take home and talk about.
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