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Mat Fraser on disability representation

Goosebumps and a standing ovation. Not what you might expect from a keynote at the Museum’s Association. But this year’s (2014) performance by Mat Fraser delivered just that.  The artistic work was shaped out of a collaborative engagement with museum collections, research and expertise in medical history, museums and disability and commissioned by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester.

Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a box reassessed the ways in which disability and disabled people are portrayed in museums.
I strongly recommend you check out the performance and other interviews here.

Here are a few of Matt’s closing comments on creating new exhibition practices around disability:

‘Replacing one authoritative voice with a variety of perspectives though not a complete answer to potential misrepresentation, does avoid having one dominant and cultural position…. I don’t always want to know what Victorian dad thought about everything

‘Surely it’s best practice to use the words of the day? Perhaps accompanying it with what the equivalent word might be today and a couple of viewpoints as to why that word might have changed. Regarding Victorian freak shows for example; renaming risks missing the actual voice historically used against disabled people if we replace the actual derogatory terms with gentle anachronisms that we never used in the nineteenth century’

‘Updating, improving and mending existing exhibitions: Could be done by the addition of personal memorabilia such as family photos, work tools, clothes, letters.
Take it out of the medical gaze and imbue it with some humanity of shared lived experience.’
Images, still and moving, and the audio adding the comments of disabled people today.
Charting the differences in social relations through time.
Having accompanying interactive exercises and questionnaire for children and students.’

‘If every museum in the UK did one rethink on even one artifact this year, it would make a huge difference. If some of them had exhibitions that represented disability on some way in the next two years it would be a real cultural shift…’


Another great resource from University of Leicester is Rethinking Disability is reviewed here.




By Tracy-Ann Smith





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