Rethinking Disability in the Museum Sector

On the 9th of March, I had the opportunity to attend History of Place's Rethinking Disability Symposium, which was held at the Museum of Liverpool. This was a chance for individuals from across the museum sector to get together to talk about what needs to change in the treatment of disabled individuals and disability, and how these changes can be brought about.

The History of Place project is an ambitious series of events and exhibitions which aims to tell the story of 800 years in the lives of disabled people, using eight sites and three exhibitions: The Blind School: Pioneering People and Places at the Museum of Liverpool; Without Walls: Disability and Innovation in Building Design at the V & A; and Brave Poor Things: Reclaiming Bristol's Disability History at the MShed in Bristol. This symposium was a chance for those who have been involved to share the work that they have been doing with the wider sector, as well as to see the Blind School exhibit - an exhibition which had been carefully designed to be as accessible as possible - with the use of audio description, BSL, subtitles, and tactile displays. My own research focuses on the representation of disability within museum collections, so I was interested in discovering what successes and problems had arisen from this project.

Disability is often an afterthought for museums and galleries - even modern redesigns are frequently inaccessible to wheelchair users. Moreover, often the medical model of disability is used - one which focuses on the impairment of the disabled individual, in contrast with the social model which emphasizes the barriers disabled individuals face and the ways that these barriers can be removed - which often leaves disabled people feeling unwelcome within the museum and gallery space. It was therefore heartening to hear Jocelyn Dodd speaking of the work that the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries has been carrying out over the last fifteen years to explore how the social model can be used by museums in order to ensure disability is shown in a way that ensures the inclusion of disabled individuals.

However, this symposium went beyond conceiving disabled individuals as a topic of exhibition - it also considered how disabled individuals can access the museums, with Anna Fineman of VocalEyes explaining that in a 2016 survey, 70% of museum websites had no information about access information for blind and partially sighted visitors - meaning that 70% of websites were acting as a barrier to attendance for disabled individuals. Including this information should be simple, so it was disheartening to know that so few were currently doing so, but VocalEyes is doing this research in order to create change, and I believe they will be successful.

It was wonderful to see the sheer enthusiasm with which those present approached the topic, which had the potential to be difficult. However, the real challenge will be taking the lessons from this and applying it to our own practice. Barry Ginley, the Head of Disability and Inclusion at the V&A, spoke about how exhibitions about disability should be viewed as ambitious rather than risky. I can only hope that people are willing in the future to carry on with the enthusiasm and ambition that I saw during this symposium, leading to real change in the sector.

There are 13.3 million disabled individuals in the UK, and the museum sector needs to ensure that it considers this. This symposium was an excellent step towards achieving that goal.
This entry was written by Jenni Hunt, a PhD student at the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies, researching the display of narratives of disability within museum collections. Twitter: @our_objects


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