How long does it take to really ‘see’ something?

This is a question that I continually ask myself.

And this sense of ‘seeing’ is very different from only using the eyes to investigate something – it also involves listening and maybe even smell and touch. I could say to myself, ‘well don’t I really mean how long does it take to ‘know’ something?’ But no, it’s not quite that. This sense of ‘seeing’ definitely does have knowledge inside of it, but it doesn’t presume to know, (all there is), about the thing being seen. If an encounter is perhaps a one off experience, maybe it’s about an encounter becoming something more familiar.

I’m thinking about this because as an artist carrying out research in a museum, it’s necessary to accept that you know less than anyone else in the organisation about the building and its contents and yet your potential function, (or one of them!) is to reveal a different way of ‘seeing’ the things that have become overly familiar to those who work there.

There isn’t a separate space for the artist in residence, (I get to hang out in the staff room – which is great for catching people in conversation), and this adds to a sense of being in other people’s territory. As a way of navigating this, I find it really useful to mix my time at the museum between Monday when it’s closed; others week days when I’m not ‘public’, but present; and on other week days, sometimes having a public presence.

As well as this of course there is my time spent at the Metropolitan Archive and then various offsite conversations which I have arranged, or Alison, (Collections Manager), has helped arrange for me.

One of these conversations has had a big impact and I don’t yet know how it will contribute to what I present at the end of my residency. It’s a conversation that came about from a conversation.

During the Museum’s incredible Soup for 100 event, I happened to sit next to a fantastic conversationalist – Caroline Russell – who then by email, introduced me to a friend of hers – Jean Robertson-Molloy.

Caroline thought I might be interested to meet Jean to hear about her campaign. Jean is head of ‘Movement for an Adoption Apology’ (MAA) which is campaigning for the government to recognise the suffering caused by forced adoptions during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Jean is cautious about the word ‘forced’ but since synonyms for this word include coercion and pressure perhaps it is a fitting word to describe what took place for women who had children outside of marriage during that period.

As a woman who didn’t become grown-up herself until the end of the 80’s / early 90’s, I’m sorry to say that despite studying feminism, I have been pretty ignorant of just how harshly, pregnant, unmarried women were often treated by medical and social services. As well as the ways in which they were denied information or misled due to social pressure / stigma, (for instance not being given information about welfare services, including housing and financial help which were available at the time). The finality of adoption meant that birth mothers surrendered their right to information and for those who had not made an informed consent, this finality was heart-breaking. All of this resulted in many stories of women suffering traumatising pre- and post-natal experiences and of children being denied contact with their birth parents; stories which are still unfolding, even though birth mothers from that period are now in their sixties and seventies.

Jean lent me two books to read:

‘Oranges and Sunshine’ (Empty Cradles) – the story of the Nottingham social worker who uncovered the fact that up to 150,000 children, some as young as three years old, had been deported from children’s homes in Britain and shipped off to a ‘new life’ in distant parts of the Empire, right up until as recently as 1970. (Many were told that their parents were dead, and parents often believed that their children had been adopted in Britain).

And ‘Adoption and Loss’ by Evelyn Burns Robinson which is about Evelyn’s own experience of having a child adopted as well as her work with other birth mothers and the affects that the loss of their child has had both on them and their (adopted) child. In the book, she writes about her experience of being told that if she loves her, (unborn), child she will give him up for adoption in order to let him have a better chance in life; only to be told after giving birth that she can’t have ‘really loved’ her child if she agreed to give him away. This painful contradiction triggers a huge sadness and feeling of worthlessness in her, (for being so ‘stupid’). Alongside this she talks about the pain – a loss in some ways worse than death for a birth parent – of not knowing how your child is doing: whether they are safe and happy or even whether they are still alive.

I heard almost exactly the same words used by a father on a BBC R4 programme which was broadcast last week on 15 January. Called Forced Adoptions and the Mums On The Run, it explored the cases of several British couples who have left the UK because they are scared that their child, once born, will be forcibly removed from them. Under current British law, a care order can allow a local authority to make legal decisions about what happens to a child and social services can forcibly remove a child from its parents if there is a belief that a child has been, or is likely to, suffer mental or physical harm. Because of several high profile and shocking cases of child abuse in recent years there is an ‘increased willingness to intervene’. John Hemmingway, a Liberal Democrat MP, thinks that the system is ‘procedurally biased’ against parents. So certain parents have decided to leave England, (going to Ireland or Europe) before their child is born, rather than risk that their child might be forcibly taken from them.

A retired journalist turned human rights activist who has helped couples leave England was interviewed on the programme and asked why he thought that his judgement of the people he helped – their fitness to be loving parents – was more right than the judgement of social services who had decided the same parents, weren’t. He replied that, ‘I use my judgement and my age, and I listen to my conscience.’ Whilst he admitted that of course he might be proved wrong in the future, he hadn’t been proved wrong, yet.

Alongside this is the case which emerged late last November of an Italian women, who came to England to take a short course for work, but whilst here suffered a breakdown which caused her to be sectioned and have her baby forcibly removed by a caesarean operation and then taken into care. Fifteen months on and back in Italy, she is still trying to prove that she is a ‘fit’ mother.

Not surprisingly, several European countries are beginning to ask questions about England’s adoption policies.

In meeting Jean and following this line of research so far, I feel like I’m confronted with the deepest, darkest layers of public opinion about children and parenting, as well as the current state of relationship between the state and the individual. When it seems that as a society we’re surrounded by fear – fear of not seeing where harm or violence might be taking place – how can we make a judgement that we really know what we’re seeing at all?





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