Panels and Abstracts: Day 1

Tuesday 22nd March 2022: 11.45 - 18.30 GMT

 12.00 - 13.10 - Nothing About Us Without Us: Collaboration and Co-Production

Miriam Hunt, 'Disability in the Museum: Discourse and Silence'

Disabled people remain absent in many museums around the UK, despite objects related to disability history being held in their collections. Writers have explored why this is the case, citing reasons such as curator anxiety and audience discomfort (Carden-Coyle 2010, Sandell et al 2005). This work aims to explore meaning-making processes around disability objects and stories, or their absence, in a case study of the National Museum Wales (NMW-AC) and how these patterns of presence and absence affect disabled visitors to museum galleries.

Drawing on qualitative interviews and focus groups with museum staff and visitors who described themselves as living with a disability, this presentation begins with a prosthetic leg in a glass case. It will use Foucault’s concept of discourse to explore why one display came to mean so many different things to different things to different people – from an object of some interest, to a thread connecting the viewer to a now-nameless disabled sailor from Swansea’s past, to an indictment of social views of disability as a whole. It will then turn to the places in the gallery where visitors felt absence of disabled voices keenly, and why they felt these silences had come about.


Henriette Pleiger, 'Experts in their own right – A transdisciplinary and participatory exhibition with and about people with Down’s syndrome'

The presentation introduces a transdisciplinary and participatory exhibition case from Germany, co-curated by the researcher. The exhibition TOUCHDOWN. An Exhibition with and about People with Down’s Syndrome was presented in Bonn, Bremen and Bern from 2016 until 2018 and attracted over 80,000 visitors.

Within the theoretical framework of my PhD thesis the exhibition TOUCHDOWN serves as a case study and as an example for a successful transdisciplinary project from the realm of the arts and humanities, integrating different ways of knowing and of producing knowledge.

The exhibition and the accompanying book aimed to comprehensively research and tell the history of people with Down’s syndrome for the first time, as they had not been part of our written history so far. Including a wide range of disciplines such as genetics, medicine, history, archaeology, social science and art, this research process was conducted together with a group of people with Down’s syndrome. They took part in the decision-making processes during the development of the exhibition, especially during the curatorial process of choosing and interpreting objects. At least 50 percent of the produced texts for the exhibition and the book were written by people with Down’s syndrome. All other texts were written in a clear language. They also acted as paid docents in their own exhibition and were thus not only part of the knowledge production but also of the interpretation and dissemination of the knowledge generated in this exhibition.



14.00 - 15.30 - Objects and Collections: Uncovering Links to the Past

Emma Yeo, '“Mine own deformity” (Shakespeare's Richard III): An autoethnographic response to scoliosis objects in modern museum collections'

This paper engages with Kudlick's assertion that "rethinking disability... can't help but ask those... to confront our own sense of embodiment and its relationship to our world" (Kudlick 2013). I responded to the visible/invisible nature of disability through an exploration of digitally available historic objects relating to the spinal condition scoliosis (which I have) and interrogated my responses using Braun and Clarke's thematic analysis method.

For my first reading, I encountered objects with my internal biases unquestioned. The cane in the hand of a female skeleton with disfiguring scoliosis provoked uncomfortable reflections upon my own relationship with my disabled body.

Having engaged with key works on disability history such as Bess Williamson's work on disability aids (Williamson 2018) to problematise my initial assumptions, I returned to the objects. The presentation of disabled individuals within the heritage industry can not only, as this conference call stressed, "bring disabled people... into the public consciousness" but it can also reshape disabled people's self and communal identities in empowering ways (Sprague and Hayes 2000).


Philippa Campsie, 'Tactile history: discoveries in a Paris archive'

The museum of the Association Valentin Haüy is housed in a building not far from the Eiffel Tower. There is no curator and no budget, but a volunteer will open the museum for researchers. It is a storehouse of treasures to be explored with the fingers: three-dimensional educational devices, artworks, writing machines, and historical artifacts. The collection includes the papers of Charles Barbier (1767–1841), the first to create raised-point writing, an invention that Louis Braille turned into a universal tool for people who are blind. The creation of Braille has often been misrepresented in modern accounts, but using Barbier’s correspondence, Philippa Campsie pieced together a more accurate picture of the story (Disability Studies Quarterly 41:2). Yet the museum’s collection has other stories to tell. For 20 years following the adoption of his writing method, Barbier never stopped proposing forms of communication by tactile means, not just for people who are blind, but for all denied the benefits of literacy in the 19th century. The objects he created remain in the museum, telling of invention and efforts to change education for everyone in France.


Alice Conibere, 'John Carter’s 'Inventions and Specialities': Marketing 'Invalidism' in Victorian England

Search the online catalogue of the V&A museum and under ‘disability’ there’s a doll’s wheelchair (mid-1990s), but it requires the search term ‘invalid’ to bring up the one life-sized wheeled chair example (The Gouty Chair, ca. 1800, undisplayed). The search category flags the potential for the term ‘invalid’ to conceal histories of disability. My research looks at another V&A object, an 1879 ‘invalid appliances’ catalogue – ‘Carter’s List of Patented Inventions and Specialties’ - and the businessmen behind it. The advertised devices (including wheeled chairs) bear differing degrees of resemblance to modern equipment associated with physical disability. The term ‘invalid’ presents further complications through its elastic meaning within Victorian Britain, encompassing – at its furthest extension – the only negligibly ill. I argue that ‘lifestyle choice’ was one aspect of ‘invalidism’, to which the catalogue catered. The descriptions of many products convey status-values to a potential luxury market of the genteelly inactive. Given their aesthetic qualities, it seems surprising that more such items aren’t found within museums that specifically celebrate ‘design’. Where these contradictions leave our understanding of Victorian-era physical disability - and its modern-day museum presentation – are the kinds of questions sparked by the object-study that forms the basis of my paper.



15.45 - 16.55 - Representation Matters: Making Disability Visible

Dr Amber Lloydlangston, 'Neglected History: Material Traces of Disability in Museum London's Collections.'

This presentation will explore disability history within Museum London’s material culture collection and exhibition history. Museum London (ML) is a community museum in London, Ontario, with an artifact collection numbering some 50,000 items. Among them are the material traces of disability history acquired from individuals and institutions. They include a hearing aid, prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, braces, archival materials, photographs, and more. And yet a review of ML’s exhibition history reveals that these artifacts have only rarely been displayed. This presentation will explore reasons why this might be so. It will also highlight the approaches taken when artifacts have been exhibited. And it will explore the directions I would like to take in the future as the curator responsible for highlighting the museum’s existing holdings and growing them in new directions. With these points of focus, the presentation will touch on the visibility and invisibility of disability history, the objects and material culture of disability, and the interpretation and display of disability history, all at Museum London.


Dr Rafie Cecillia, 'The effect of positive representations of disability in museums on visually impaired visitors’ meaning-making and identity formation'

This paper presents how the encounters with positive museum narratives of disability make disabled visitors feel represented. It looks at how these positive encounters increase disabled visitors’ confidence and empower them to establish a relationship with the objects by making their own meaning. Findings presented in this paper come from my PhD project ‘Inclusive visions: embodied practice and meaning-making in the museum experience of visually impaired visitors’. I will present the experience of Anna, a blind athlete that visited the ‘London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games’ gallery at the Museum of London. Anna’s experience strengthened, enhanced, and developed her connection with the Paralympic games through the highly emotional and personal connection she developed with the objects in the gallery. The gallery’s narrative embodied intellectual, historic and emotional meaning for Anna. My presentation shows how this connection contributed to Anna’s identity development as a disabled person and athlete. Findings show how the inclusion of the lived experiences of disabled people is essential to amplify their voices and inform and challenge negative views of disability. This paper contributes to the understanding that museums play a crucial role in reframing, informing and enabling how society perceives and understands disability.