Disabled people are still museums' missing audience - Museums Association

Disabled people are still museums’ missing audience

Despite initiatives, research and targeted projects, people with disabilities are not visiting museums and galleries as much as the rest of the population. Geraldine Kendall investigates why and asks what more can be done
This month sees the launch of the Cabinet of Curiosities, a new performance by disabled actor and artist Mat Fraser inspired by the artefacts and narratives in medical museum collections.

Through rhetoric and humour, Fraser aims to stimulate debate about the health profession’s traditionally narrow view of disability as a problem that needs to be “fixed”, and offer a new model for the future.

The project is part of Stories of a Different Kind, an initiative led by Leicester University’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) to challenge how museums interpret disability.

The RCMG has a long-held involvement in this area – its new initiative builds on the 2008 action research project, Rethinking Disability Representation, which put forward some ground-breaking ideas about how museums could use their collections to create new narratives around disability.

But a lot has changed since then. Last year, a series of films (in which the RCMG was also involved) struck a grim note for the progress of disabled people’s rights in the UK.

The Odyssey Barriers series explores how, under austerity, the fight to see disability differently and build positive representations is being undermined by the government’s attacks on welfare and negative stereotypes of disabled people.

Likewise, Stories of a Different Kind is inspired by a 2012 report showing a rise in disability hate crime, says Leicester University’s Richard Sandell.

First world war

Museums (and the culture sector in general) are highly trusted institutions, so have a hugely significant role to play in framing perceptions of disability and uncovering disabled people’s history, says Sandell – as well as a strong legal obligation to do so.

It’s a pertinent time to assess how well the sector is dealing with these issues. This year sees the beginning of the government’s £50m, four-year programme to commemorate the first world war centenary, which will be a timely opportunity to explore disabled culture 100 years on from a conflict that transformed both societal and medical attitudes to disability.

Paralympics legacy

It remains to be seen whether many museums will focus on this aspect – the centenary database, 1914.org, currently shows just one project looking at disability (though this may change as commemorations move on to aftermath of war).

At the same time, the Paralympics and the Cultural Olympiad – a high point of visibility for disabled people’s achievements – are receding in the public’s memory and the long-term legacy of the games is becoming more apparent; early research by the thinktanks Demos and Accentuate suggests that the positive impacts and perceptions created by the Cultural Olympiad have not been sustained, nor have they trickled down to the wider disabled community.

The most recent figures from England’s rolling Taking Part survey back this up, showing that disabled people’s engagement with culture still lags significantly behind those who are non-disabled (see graph) and does not appear to have increased since the games.

In the late 1990s, an academic report identified three tiers of access that museums should provide to meet the needs of disabled audiences: physical access to the environment through facilities such as ramps and lifts; access to exhibition content through equipment such as audio guides and handling objects; and inclusion of disabled people in the narratives and interpretation of the exhibition.

Holistic approach

The first two of those tiers are now relatively well embedded in museum practice, but what about the third? There are pockets of excellence, says Sandell, such as English Heritage’s online resource, Disability in Time and Place, which tells the stories of disabled people’s lives in historic properties from 1050 to the present.

But in the wider sector there is still a tendency to see disability merely as a “compliance issue”, he says, and museums often don’t give it the same attention as they do other diversity issues.

Representation is being taken more seriously – but what is needed is a holistic approach that addresses all three tiers at once, says Heather Smith, chairwoman of the Jodi Awards, which recognise innovative developments in accessible digital culture.

The advancement of digital technology offers significant opportunities to do this, says Smith – museums are starting to use existing equipment in more inventive ways to engage with disabled people, like IWM Duxford’s Jodi Award-winning audio trail for visually impaired visitors.

The content was designed to appeal to non-disabled audiences, making it an inclusive resource that does not create a barrier between visitors of any ability.

But such innovations are not matched by an equal will at the highest levels. Cuts have led to widespread redundancies in museums with an as yet unknown toll on access and disability outreach posts. Meanwhile, the government scrapped Equality Impact Assessments in England last year, sending a message that institutions did not have to prioritise such provisions.

“What I want is to bring disability out of the cabinet of curiosities and show it as a living breathing thing,” says Fraser. The sector still has a way to go to meet this objective.

Jocelyn Dodd

“The focus that we’ve had in Stories of a Different Kind is to look at how it is society itself that disables people. The traditional medical view tries to pigeonhole people and define what is normal, and medical museum collections have been very much about constructing a view of disability based on this very medicalised model – how can we give a more nuanced picture when this view is so embedded in collections?

We are using this project to ask people to think about analysing collections in a different way and we’re trying to quite radically shift our own thinking.

Disabled people are not one homogenous group. The number of museum collections that hold disabled histories is enormous but most of the material is not being used to tell those stories.

Museums can be quite apologetic and timid in dealing with disability. People connect it with charity and see projects as ‘worthy’; they are wary about thinking it is important in the same way as race or gender. But museums could have a fantastic impact.

If people see disability in a trusted public space, that’s incredibly powerful place for that to happen. What really annoys me is when a museum says ‘we already did disability’. It’s never done.”

Jocelyn Dodd is head of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at Leicester University

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