The Science Museum's beautifully organised "Pain" exhibition opens up discussion of one of our great unrecognised taboos. Most of us can hardly bear to talk about pain in private, let alone acknowledge it in public. Instead, we prefer the voyeuristic - indeed, pornographic - approach to pain and violence typified by contemporary Tarantino-style films.
The torture instruments displayed here encourage us to think about the religious connection between pain and truth. Highly decorated implements for inflicting pain are shown alongside masks worn by the torturer and the victim. But despite our horror at such barbarous acts, are we really so much more civilised today, when gangland reprisal movies cannot be made fast or gory enough, and when reconstructions of executions or pictures of a humiliated Saddam Hussein reach us wherever we are? How should we understand our current fascination with the pain of others and the disavowal of our own?
Pain can be understood as an expression of a social relationship. When we witness other people's pain, whether it is emotional or physical, suffering is given credence by our capacity to empathise with it. When we wince in front of an anorectic body, we are registering what the person who starves herself is trying to avoid feeling. Pain has to be felt by someone.
Consider the phenomenon of physical pain that can occur after the loss of a limb. For most phantom-limb sufferers, the anguish is greatly increased by being thought ridiculous or not believed. How can one experience a limb in spasm when the limb is no longer there? Humiliation increases the physical pain arising in the nerve centres of the brain that are active long after the limb has been lost. And yet, for those diamond miners in South Africa who lost limbs in the pursuit of riches for their masters, the experience of phantom limbs was far from humiliating. They referred to their physically absent limbs in affectionate terms, often laughing about or sighing over these wayward body parts. Recognising and sharing pain allows it to be accepted rather than denied or imposed on others.
Intelligently curated by Javier Moscoso, a Spanish historian and philosopher of science, the exhibition forces us to consider why we continue to deny and dissociate ourselves from pain. It opens with three historical representations of pain based on the theme of the chair - an ordinary piece of furniture usually associated with comfort and ease. Displayed together, the 17th-century dentist's chair, 19th-century Chinese torture chair and Victorian birthing chair show how pain accompanies us through life. We experience it in health and in sickness; we inflict it on others and have it inflicted on us.
Pain, the exhibition proposes, is endemic to life. We cannot escape it, despite our efforts to hide it, to medicate it, to submit it to religious obeisance. Those scientific pundits who have disparaged the exhibition might fantasise about a world without it, but this is impossible. We may have a cultural fear of pain, but as suggested by the mournful singing of Curro Pinana that accompanies us through the exhibition, we know we cannot live life without it.
The exhibition weaves between the witty, the horrific, the challenging and the banal. R Schuster's And She Had a Heart! is an astonishing image of a woman being operated on to see whether she possessed a heart - presumably she failed to fulfil the caring, compassionate, feminine role. Then there are Francisco Goya's gruesome depictions of war, which remind us of a time when such violent images still had the power to disturb. Seeing those pictures, one almost longs to be confronted with the dreadful realities of war rather than the high-tech images we saw on our screens last spring.
A series of pictures and models of religious submission and the suffering Christ reveals how this most intimate of relationships is bound up with pain, torment and grief. We are also reminded that violence and physical pain are conditions of the animal world, too: the routine savaging of one animal by another is simply nature doing its work. Why do we think we are so special that we agonise over pain?
And that brings me to the exhibition's one serious omission - psychoanalysis and its attention to human pain. It could be argued that psychoanalysis is all about human pain: its inevitability, its consequences, its search for recognition. In the 20th century, emotional suffering was claimed, named and valorised.
Like the religious figures of old, psychoanalysts are vested with hearing the pain that cannot be borne or heard by others. Artists challenge us with their depic- tions of pain; psychoanalysts are willing accomplices to their patients' quests to rid themselves of suffering. Psychoanalysis insists that pain not felt is pain that corrodes. Pain denied is pain transformed - into self-hatred, depression, self-abuse - or is transferred on to another. We can never rid ourselves of pain, nor should we, for the capacity to register and endure it enhances our experience of life. The best we can do is to know when we hurt and to accept it.
"Pain: passion, compassion, sensibility" is at the Science Museum, London SW7 (0870 870 4868) until 20 June
Susie Orbach's most recent books are The Impossibility of Sex and Susie Orbach on Eating (Penguin)