Buried in the Footnotes

The representation of disabled people in museum and gallery collections

Buried in the Footnotes: the representation of disabled people in museum and gallery collections was a one year research project funded by the (then) Arts and Humanities Research Board’s Innovations Awards scheme.

Background

Buried in the Footnotes represented a new questioning of the past and an exploration of the hidden histories of disabled people in museum and gallery collections. These remain severely under-researched, and to the visitor, museums and galleries appear to have extremely limited material in their exhibitions and displays which represent disabled people. Recent studies of the role that museums can play in combating social exclusion and inequality suggest that collection and displays are potentially important elements in this process.

Buried in the Footnotes

Aims and objectives

Buried in the Footnotes started with the premise that there would be material attesting to the lives of disabled people to be found in museum collections. Although the research team had little idea of the nature, quantity, or condition of that material (or of the quality of the information attached to it that related to disability), their assumption was that there would be evidence to be found.

Buried in the Footnotes researched behind the displays and within the collections of UK museums and galleries to identify evidence that can attest to the historical lives of disabled people. It also sought to identify and examine the curatorial practices that have contributed to the under/misrepresentation of disabled people in museums. The research questions were:

  • What evidence exists within museum collections and associated documentation that relates to the lives of disabled people, both historical and contemporary?
  • How, if at all, has this evidence been interpreted, displayed or otherwise made accessible to the public? If so, within what categories have disabled people been represented?
  • How has evidence of the fact of disability been changed, distorted or lost during the period that the information has been held by the museum?
  • What factors, historical and contemporary, have affected the way in which information about the lives of disabled people related to collections has been collected, documented and made publicly available? What factors influence, or have influenced, curators’ attitudes towards this information and its dissemination?

Key findings

Objects relating to disabled people were found to be present in quantity in all the case study collections. However, despite the richness of the material in museum collections, the displayed material was, with a few exceptions, limited in quantity and range. Material on display tended to confirm the stereotypical roles of disabled people in society. However the case study research was designed to draw out and reveal unexpected evidence. In addition to the stereotypical roles discussed above, we found evidence of disabled people who were teachers, coopers, miners, musicians, linguists, quilters, embroiderers, painters, naval commanders, collectors, sculptors, fundraisers, radiographers, nursing educators and politicians/merchants. This evidence, it might be argued, gives museums the potential to engage with and challenge the expectation that disability must equal a low contribution to society, by demonstrating how varied and potentially influential the roles of disabled people have been in the past.

There was a perceived need amongst museum staff for an authoritative voice on the representation of disability, to identify poor performance and to give guidance on preferred ways of moving forward – including specific guidance on display standards, wording and other difficult issues. Curators wanted to avoid ‘shock’, ‘distress’, ‘offence’, ‘upset’ and ‘difficulty’. Yet the research team encountered considerable interest in the topic from curators and other staff who participated in the research. Many welcomed the opportunities it created to discuss the presence of disabled people in museums and collections, in ways which were distinct from but complementary to parallel discussions about disability access.

New approaches to the display and representation of the material could enable museums to play an important role in addressing contemporary issues around disability and disability discrimination. By contesting reductive stereotypes, addressing the ‘difficult stories’ surrounding disability history and demonstrating the diversity of disability experience, museums have the capacity to challenge understanding of what disability has meant to society in the past, and could mean in the future.

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Research Centre for Museums and Galleries
School of Museum Studies
University of Leicester
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