Disorder, dissent and disruption

Making new narratives of disability and difference with the Wellcome Collection

Over the past two decades museums have increasingly experimented with curatorial and engagement practices that critique and disrupt previously unquestioned or seemingly stable and immutable exhibition narratives. In a variety of settings and through a wide range of topics, efforts have been made to open up possibilities for new ways of seeing, for debate and dialogue around contemporary social issues and identities, very often drawing on the perspectives and lived experiences of previously excluded or marginalised groups.

In the case of disability – and its uneasy relationship with the medical world – this ‘disruption’ has largely been achieved through temporary interventions that have sought to question assumptions that are made about diverse bodies and mental differences and highlight the troubling implications that stem from limiting and idealised norms.  These interventions have often enjoyed a high profile but have tended to leave the ‘core museum’ – in particular permanent galleries – largely unchanged.

A new research collaboration between RCMG and the Wellcome Collection considers the challenges surrounding the embedding of disruption in permanent galleries and explores practical ways in which such disruption might be ethically shaped and productively realised in the context of new displays at the Wellcome Collection.

It will draw on a range of projects, concepts and practices to consider:

  • What constitutes ‘productive disruption’?

What forms of disruption are welcome, ethical and open up possibilities for transformative understanding in visitors? And conversely, what forms of disruption are unwelcome, result in confusion, offence or otherwise close down opportunities for engagement and dialogue?

  • More particularly, in the context of a gallery exploring contemporary health and medicine, how might challenges to dominant medicalised views of physical and mental diversity – often perceived as unwelcome aberrations in need of fix or cure – be introduced?

This collaboration builds on the Wellcome Trust-funded research – Exceptional and Extraordinary: unruly bodies and minds in the medical museum – which set out to explore the role of medical museums and collections in shaping and upholding perceived norms and discriminatory attitudes towards disabled people.  It asked ‘Why are some lives more highly valued than others?’ - and it developed a methodology that brought together disabled activists and artists, with medical historians and clinicians to re-examine the long standing tensions between different ways of perceiving disability and to jointly reinscribe new narratives of difference.

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