Fraser: museums must work to change perceptions of disabled people

Gareth Harris, 10.10.2014
Museums can help disabled people feel that history belongs to them
The artist and performer Mat Fraser threw down the gauntlet to the sector in his rousing keynote address today at the Museums Association conference to change people’s perception of disabled people.

Fraser presented a version of his show, Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept In A Box. The performance was commissioned as part of Stories of a Different Kind, a project led by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester in collaboration with the Hunterian Museum, the Science Museum and others exploring how disability is presented in museums.

Fraser stressed that museums are perceived as “authorities that are not questioned”, arguing that disabled people have been reduced to their “impairments” in museum collections. The sector needs to “re-frame and change the prism” through which disabled people are seen, he said, and find new avenues of representation.

But museums have made progress regarding the treatment, and representation, of disabled people in the past 15 years, Fraser said, citing "Lives in Motion: Transport and Disability", held at at the Museum of Transport (Glasgow Museums), as an example of a pioneering exhibition.

Two curators from St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff, Sioned Williams and Elen Phillips, presented several items from their collection, demonstrating how “disability history can be given new perspectives”, Fraser said. Items shown included a 1930s dress worn by a patient at the former Hensol hospital in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Fraser’s recommendations include using current terminology, "or the best words of the day", to describe disabled people. He concluded by saying that the sector would be transformed if "every museum did one re-think of one artefact" in their collections so that "disabled people feel that history belongs to them".

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