The dangers of assumption

Many years ago, when I worked for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I ran a travelling art service called “Onsight”*. I took art exhibitions to people for whom a visit to the Gallery would be difficult or impossible, for example, to prisons, hospitals and nursing homes. One day, I visited a nursing home in a northern beaches suburb of Sydney. I set up the exhibition and then spoke with some residents about the artworks. After lunch, a nurse pushed a very old, fragile woman in a wheelchair into the room. Despite the fact that the woman did not look up at the paintings, I approached and began to speak. Almost immediately the nurse said to me, ‘Don’t worry about her, she’s out of it.’ I wondered, then why did she bring the woman in! I said to the nurse, ‘I’d be happy to push her for a while; have a break.’ So she thanked me and left.

I pushed the wheelchair and tried to talk to the old woman about the paintings, but I soon learned that she either didn’t understand anything, or else was not at all interested in art. So I said to her, ‘It looks like art isn’t your ”thing”. So, what does interest you?’ I didn’t expect an answer but after a short pause she said, ‘Oh, hang-gliding, abseiling, bungee-jumping…” I was momentarily silent with amazement, and thought, ‘Is she really joking with me?’ But her humour intrigued me, so I asked some more. I learned that she was the second woman in New South Wales to pilot a plane! So, she probably did those other things, too.

Now I understood: Here was a woman who previously had a very exciting, active life, but now had very little freedom and mobility. I was not at all surprised that she wasn’t interested in the paintings. No matter; I was happy instead to listen to stories about her amazing adventures. After about twenty minutes, when it was almost time for the nurse to return, the woman looked at the paintings, and one in particular. ‘I like that one,’ she said.

Then the nurse came back. It was time for the old woman to go back to her room.

Afterwards, I thought about what had happened. If I had assumed – because the woman originally showed no interest in art – that talking with her was not worthwhile, I would never have learned about her amazing life. And she would not have enjoyed (even if only slightly) one of the paintings. I wonder if the nurse ever discovered that I was actually able to communicate with the “mental incompetent” despite her advice.

* “Onsight”: a playful hybrid of the words “onsite” and “on sight”

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