This is the third blog in our series looking at the National Programmes Conference 2019. Click here to learn more about the conference and to read our previous blogs.

Our next blog covering what we learned at the National Programmes Conference covers issues of disability and colonialism.

The Wellcome Collection are tackling problematic museum displays that discuss disability. Meanwhile, the National Archives have been partnering with UK arts organisations to uncover untold histories of South Asians in the UK.

BEING HUMAN: Making new narratives of disability

Delivered by Richard Sandell & Jocelyn Dodd, University of Leicester; Tony Heaton OBE; Clare Barlow, Wellcome Collection

The problem with medical museums:

For many disabled people, medical museums and collections are distinctly problematic when dealing with themes of disability. Many medical museums are considered offensive to contemporary views of disability. They are seen to reinforce negative stereotypes of disabled people. Displays are often dehumanising; physical differences are presented as deviations from the idealised ‘norm.’ Humans with disabilities are presented as curiosities and disability is viewed and presented through a ‘non-disabled gaze.’

Sculptor and disability rights activist Tony Heaton OBE on a panel discussion on narratives of disability in museums at the National Programmes Conference
Conference photography © Josh Caius Photography

For example – a museum might have on display a prosthetic arm used in the 1960s. The text on the accompanying label gives no mention of what it was like to wear for the user and how it made them feel.

Within this context the Wellcome Collection aimed to challenge negative attitudes towards disability.

The session outlined two models of disability:
  • The Medical Model: This model views disability as a ‘problem’ that belongs to the disabled individual – a ‘defective’ person. For example, a wheelchair user might not be able to gain access to a building because of a set of stairs. The medical model would suggest that this is because of the wheelchair rather than the steps.
  • The Social Model: This model defines disability as a social construct. It identifies barriers and discrimination as a cause of disability. It asks ‘where is the problem’ and identifies that the problem is not in the individual’s impairment.

The Wellcome Collection has aimed to create a permanent gallery which adheres to the social model of disability.

Refugee Astronaut by Yinka Shonibare CBE, Thomas SG Farnetti. Source: Wellcome Collection

Being Human is a new permanent gallery at the Wellcome Collection that explores what it means to be human in the 21st century. Its mission is to explore ‘trust, identity and health in a changing world.’ Contributors to the gallery include a number of leading disability activists and accessibility was of key importance in this new gallery.

Labels for objects were written to consider the social model of disability. The Wellcome Collection invited contributors to the gallery to critique its labels as a group using post-it notes to make sure the labels fulfil the social model of disability.

Display cases have been designed in a way to allow wheelchair users to get close to the cases, labelling is in braille and audio is available alongside the written text. Seating in front of screens is slightly offset to make space and create the same view for wheelchair users. 

British Imperial History, Public Engagement and Outreach

Delivered by: Iqbal Singh, The National Archives

The purpose of the National Archive’s collaboration with arts organisations is to help to bring history alive. By relating dramatic productions to the archives, visitors should be encouraged to use and visit the archives more.

Iqbal Singh, National Archives, giving his session at the National Programmes Conference
Conference photography © Josh Caius Photography

Tamasha Theatre is a traveling theatre company which have worked with the National Archives on a project called Loyalty and Dissent. Five playwrights were commissioned to research and develop pieces relating to the experiences of people from South Asia around the time of the First World War. Using a selection of documents provided by the National Archives, these short plays aimed to bring to life diverse voices from Britain’s history and bring out the complexity of the issues surrounding empire.

These audiodramas are available to listen to on the National Archives website alongside education bundles which allow users to develop their own lines of historical inquiry using original documents from this period of history.

India in the First World War – three Sikh Indian Officers. Source: the National Archives

Nutkhut are a performance company which aims to bring to life inspiring stories of the British South-Asian experience. Dr. Blighty was a production which told one of the untold stories of the First World War. Thousands of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men from Britain’s Empire were enlisted to fight in the First World War. Brighton’s Royal Pavilion became a hospital for the wounded soldiers of Britain’s Empire.

Using archived letters written by wounded soldiers during the War, Nutkhut devised an immersive programme of performances in around Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. This included dramatic performances, live music, workshops and the development of a short film. 

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