Mat Fraser’s Cabinet of Curiosities: How disability was kept in a box
Do museums adequately reflect the whole of society? Actor and performance artist Mat Fraser shares his thoughts on the subject of disability in museums in his new live show, Cabinet of Curiosities – How Disability was kept in a box. The show presents Mat’s experience of looking through the archives of the Science Museum, the Hunterian Museum and the Royal College of Physicians as part of a wider project looking at the way society responds to difference. We asked him what museums could do to be more inclusive.
It has been a fascinating process poring over the archives of these museums, finding evidence of disabled people, some, if not most of which is buried in the footnotes of displays about other things. But there are many objects that cry out to be presented with the fully rounded history that they deserve.
The unknown prosthetic leg, repaired so many times it raises numerous questions about its owner, the Irish Giant. Trepanning tools, medical bounders and blunders, so much of our rich heritage of previous societies contains proof of disabled people’s involvement, It has been a real privilege to delve into individual examples of this, on various back room trays and inside jars, on documents and posters, all providing tantalising evidence of our shared past.
Since the birth of the modern museum, around 200 years ago, disabled people have been used to feature the benevolent church and a caring society. To illustrate medicinal and, pharmaceutical innovations, surgical techniques, industrial and technological breakthroughs, institutions and asylums, but almost never used to show how society is enriched by our inclusion.
Too often museums have given negative portrayals of disability. Marginalising and making difference all-important, and labelling disabled people’s differences as “inferior” or “deviant” is discriminatory. If museums only have us there to show certain conditions or medical technology, it reduces us to the impairments that we have, and what the medical treatments might be, rather than including/representing us as people in our own right.
In the last 15 years, led by Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd at the Research Centre of Museums and Galleries at Leicester University, various projects have looked at combatting this entrenched practice. They have shown it is possible to change, and collectively, museums have found that replacing one authoritative voice with a variety of perspectives, avoids having one traditional and dominant cultural position. Although this is not a complete answer to potential misrepresentation, it is surely an improvement.
It’s been found that non-disabled researchers have been prevalent in curating disability-related museum presentations. Clearly that should be balanced with as many disabled people’s viewpoints as possible, so that a fully rounded research practice can be achieved.
Training disabled students, people, in museum research would be vital in that developing process, to move us on from the medical gaze at disability and add some of the humanity of shared lived experience.
Museum visitors, disabled people, non disabled people, PEOPLE, all of us, can feel more connected to each other and our common histories presented in the museums, and so all society.
If every museum in the UK did a re-think on even just one artefact this year, it would make a huge difference. If some of them had exhibitions that represented disability in some way, in the next two years, it would be a real mark of progress.
Crucially, if disabled people could feel like history belongs to them as much as any other group – that their point of view is as valued as the dominant one – then perhaps museums could, finally, speak for everyone.
You can see Cabinet of Curiosities: How disability was kept in a box is on at the Science Museum on 31st January. Find out more and book tickets via the Science Museum.