By Amy Jane Barnes
The history of disability and the Holocaust is missing. This was the premise that Heather Hollins began her research seminar which drew on her current PhD research and work at the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire. The development of the eugenics programme by the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1940s, which reached its ultimate and terrible expression with the execution of thousands of men, women and children with mental and physical disabilities as a precursor to the T4 programme; a genocide which – as Heather reminded us – counted amongst its victims people with disabilities (including those with mental illnesses and learning difficulties), homosexuals, the Romany and others deemed to be ‘useless eaters’, as well as Jewish people; those not considered fit for life by the regime in their quest for racial purity.
Heather put forward a persuasive argument for the urgent incorporation of the voices and experiences of disabled survivors into Holocaust museums and exhibitions, more usually confined solely to discussions of the Jewish experience. While the Holocaust Centre, as an example, does discuss the experience of disabled people during the Holocaust, it is presented as contextualisation for a more familiar Jewish-focused narrative. There are no exhibition spaces in the UK that explore disability and the Holocaust in depth, which to Heather’s mind, mirrors the continued marginalisation of disability in wider contemporary society.
In order to redress the balance, Heather advocated an emancipatory methodological approach, which would help to reconnect disabled people with their history and crucially, enable them to wrest authority from museum curators to take the lead in the development of representations of disability in the museum. Following on from the outcomes of the RCMG project ‘Buried in the Footnotes’, urgent work is required to map existing knowledge, archives and collections to uncover information already in existence and to research and gather testimonies from disabled survivors.
In conclusion, Heather asserted the role of museums to reflect the experiences of disability, and in so doing, shaping contemporary and future attitudes to disability. With the mapping of the human genome and advances in genetic medicine, interest in the concept of the ‘perfect human’ has remerged. Museums, through balanced reflection on issues related to disability offer us the opportunity to chart and navigate contemporary controversies.
All in all this was an engaging and thought-provoking seminar, which introduced those in attendance to one aspect of Heather’s research project, which promises to be an inspirational and important study into the representation of disability in the museum environment.
The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.