This is the area that has least focus in many museum collections but, at the same time, has provided much inspirational thought for a re-think of the use and display of the collections. Relevant material here often appears under categories such as blind, deaf, lame, surgical, cripple, dwarf, giant, lunatic, invalid, crutch and peg-leg. However contentious the terms, they provide a glimpse into the social prejudices of the day.
A shift in perspective does not require resources; yet it enables new ways of thinking and generating fresh interpretations. Curators can look at known objects previously not identified with diverse issues, and speculate as to other possible uses – spectacles, walking sticks, vehicles for human conveyance could be seen in another light. Archaeological finds that show evidence of life impairment and imagery on pottery may be reconceived.
The skeleton with rickets in the ‘London before London’ gallery, for instance, could raise a whole series of questions relevant to contemporary disabilities, even if the evidence is scarce: How did he live, survive, how did he move around, how did he deal with the treatment he got from other members of the community?
Before the museum collections can be fully utilised, ongoing documentation of actual and potential items in the collection is a priority. Not only could this inventory be exchanged between heritage institutions to allow for more informed collaborative work, but also between community organisations and individuals with a particular interest.
This documentation has already begun at the Museum of London as another part of this project with the work of Charlotte Samuels. Individual curators can play a very important role by logging any finds in a central database on a continuous basis, for there is much more to unearth. Detailed descriptions and labels in particular departments could be logged for centralised documentation purposes. Even if the artefacts only suggest a possible use for disability, they could still be highlighted in a secondary category to fuel debate and further research.
Known objects associated with the lives of disabled people and recorded in Museum of London collections go back to the sixteenth century and include a wide array of items and imagery of the physically disabled, blind, deaf and dumb, and the mentally disabled. There are also several photographs by Henry Grant and David Hoffman focusing on the working lives of the blind, deaf and dumb.
Recent acquisitions concentrate on material relating to the Disability Discrimination Act 2003. Oral histories also exist, for instance one woman recounts how she was forced to leave work due to her failing vision. The slow loss of ability and how this is dealt with by individuals is a very poignant subject of interest for all.
There are occasional items which suggest multiple diverse identities, for example with the Disabled Gays’ Guide of 1981. There is a cartoon donated by the Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights for the Collecting 2000 project, a group that represents multicultural, old, young, disabled and able-bodied, parents and single lesbians and gays.
A leaflet promoting the activities of Gemma represents a self-help group of disabled and non-disabled lesbians and bisexual women, founded in 1976. Cross–references such as this are crucial to exploring the theme of multiple identities or difference within difference which can be taken on board in a whole range of projects.
What is also pertinent to explore is the finer distinctions between people with different kinds of disabilities – how has this affected their lives both in negative and positive ways? The blind are represented through numerous images and artefacts. Items such as spectacles and a Braille writing machine from the mid-twentieth century are also included, as are creative inventions such as a blind shoe repairer’s finishing machine. Items showing how the blind deal with mundane lives are crucial to providing histories of the disabled as ordinary people.
A cardboard box for artificial flowers in two parts made by blind girl inmates of The Crippleage is instructive here. Artificial flower making was introduced in the institution as a suitable form of training and employment for the girls from 1879. Similarly, there is an intriguing shoe repairer’s finishing machine used by a blind home-worker, Norman John Kibble who, until his death in 1989, worked as a craft shoe- repairer from a garage at the rear of his home in Barking. Replicas could be used to allow groups to work with these artefacts in a journey of empathic understanding.
Another area to explore is the world of metaphors of disability. How can these suggest a reversal of the pathologies commonly associated with the physically challenged? For example, a nineteenth century plaster and wood trade figure shows a blindfolded figure of justice or a blindfolded cupid holding a bow and arrow on an eighteenth century valentines card.
They evoke the idea that it is abled, seeing people who are the ones that are ‘blind’ and who are not free from prejudice when it comes to charting out a true course. In addition, blind musicians and other artists represented in the collections reveal the positive aspects of disabled lives that have enthralled many.
Regarding deafness, there are nineteenth century metal and celluloid ear pieces, an early twentieth century leaflet describing sign language with an image of Queen Victoria using sign language at her bedside, and a David Hoffmann photo of a deaf and dumb club taking part in a football match.
Physical disabilities are revealed through numerous prints and paintings, figures made by disabled soldiers in the two world wars, wheelchairs, leg callipers and so forth.
Mental disabilities are harder to focus upon through material remains but there are a notable number of documents and prints in the MoL collections which suggest ways into the inner worlds and social views and victimisation of the mentally disabled. Mental disabilities are indicated by portrayals of Bedlam, a cartoon about the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, and occasional references to people described as ‘mentally deranged’, as occurs with the 1760 print showing the trial of Earl Ferrers, described as a ‘debauched and mentally deranged aristocrat’.
What to do with this material requires training and consultancy with experts in the field so that confidence is gained, insights are provided and questions to pursue are highlighted. Once the potential of any one collection is known, then notes can be exchanged with other individuals and institutions to allow for a thriving resource and loan network with which to work in future projects.
Projects could look into bodily challenges in which ‘able’ and ‘disabled’ people are brought together. Sport, particularly a focus on the Olympics and the Paralympics, is one example of many where able and disable people chart out their own gains and losses based on merit, not on prior assumptions. Activities which challenge the senses could be another means with which to draw people together from a variety of backgrounds.
Changes in the workplace, architectural designs and public spaces to accommodate disabled people are key themes with which to explore the changing nature of London’s urban spaces. A chronicle of events and/or oral histories to do with those who were victims of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London is also a significant yet highly sensitive history to record in terms of charting out changes in the fabric of the city as well as traumatic changes in peoples’ lives who were once classified as ‘able’.
The character of madness and sanity throughout the ages would be yet another potent theme through which to look at the demonisation of people conventionally seen as different. The sculptor Mark Quinn remarked that he became interested in how museums seem to be littered with mutated sculptures which are somehow seen as ‘normal’. When it comes to doing a sculpture of an actual disabled person such as Alison Lapper, it was seen as controversial.
Exploring the spaces between convention and controversy, between the ‘normal’ and ‘the abnormal’, between what was, up until recently, deemed acceptable for public spaces (Nelson) and unacceptable (Lapper) would be an extremely suggestive way to challenge expectations and prejudices about disability. More generic themes such as ‘ideas about heroism’ could be broached with an eye to representing and involving a range of diverse populations.
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