Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG)

Cabinet of Curiosities: how disability was kept in a box

A unique performance that challenges the way we think about disability.

Winner of the Observer Ethical Awards for Arts and Culture 2014.

Critically acclaimed actor and performance artist Mat Fraser was commissioned by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester to create a new artistic work, shaped out of a collaborative engagement with museum collections, research and expertise in medical history, museums and disability. This was a key part of the Stories of a Different Kind project (July 2012 - Feb 2014). Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a Box reassessed the ways in which disability and disabled people are portrayed in museums.

Mat Fraser looking at specimen jars

Experts in disability, medical history, museums and public engagement were brought together to shape and publicly present a new narrative of disability in the form of Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a Box - a provocative live performance staged in museums holding medical collections.

Fraser (pictured above) devised an intriguing and challenging live performance using museum objects and conveyed their histories through a blend of drama, comedy, dance, and cabaret, staged in museums in January 2014 that aimed to engage audiences in a reassessment of our attitudes towards disability. In this short interview, Fraser reflects on the power of museum objects to prompt questioning amongst visitors and audiences:

Cabinet of Curiosities was a highly engaging, witty, unsettling and profoundly moving performance that blended research, personal testimony, object stories, comedy, film, music hall pastiche and even an inspired rap to explore the relationship between medical thinking and practice (that has tended to view physical and mental differences as necessarily problematic and in need of fix or cure); disability rights, culture and identity; and broader negative societal attitudes towards disabled people.

Here's an excerpt from Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a Box at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, Wednesday 5 February 2014. As Lyn Gardner wrote in The Guardian : "Even the presence of Mat on stage in the very heart of this citadel of the medical profession says a great deal."

View the full performance of Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a Box at the Museums Association Conference in Cardiff, 2014.

Live post show discussions, online and social media and evaluation with attenders were used to capture Cabinet of Curiosities Science Museum picture responses and open up dialogue that will, in turn, be used to inform future research and engagement practice. In addition, the performance attracted considerable interest from the media:

  • ‘Cabinet of Curiosities is a wide-ranging, hybrid undertaking... It will open your mind and wrench at your heart as well as raising a chuckle and a gasp or two’ Ben Walters, NotTelevision
  • ‘crashing art form boundaries’ and ‘smashing sensitivities’. ‘Cabinet of telling a story of a different kind, and one that's long overdue.’ Lyn Gardner, The Guardian
  • 'I want people to leave with a more informed, equitable and respectful way of understanding disabled people, each other, all of us, society' Mat Fraser, Arts Professional
  • ‘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.’ Geraldine Kendall, Museums Journal

Download the 2013 performance flyer (PDF, 804KB).

Stories of a Different Kind

Cabinet of Curiosities was the culmination of a collaborative research project called Stories of a Different Kind initiated and led by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester with artist Mat Fraser, the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, the Science Museum, the Royal College of Physicians and SHAPE, with advice and support from the Smithsonian Institution.

The project grew from more than a decade of work in RCMG, aimed at addressing the silence in museums on disability by stimulating and shaping new approaches to the representation of disabled people and disability history, arts and culture. It looked at new ways of presenting disability in medical museums, as they hold some of the most significant collections relating to physical and mental differences but, in the past, have sometimes displayed them in ways that sit uncomfortably with contemporary, rights-based understandings of disability.

Cabinet of Curiosities was performed at the following venues:

Download the 2014 performance flyer (PDF, 148KB). All shows were BSL interpreted and audio described.

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