Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG)

Stories of a Different Kind

Wellcome Trust logo

Stories of a Different Kind was developed to engage the public in a reassessment of widely held assumptions surrounding disability and to challenge deeply entrenched negative and discriminatory contemporary attitudes towards disabled people. It was a collaborative project funded by the Wellcome Trust led by RCMG at the University of Leicester in partnership with the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, the Science Museum, the Royal College of Physicians, SHAPE, and the Smithsonian Institution. The project ran from July 2012 – February 2014.

Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a box

The project used a highly innovative vehicle to share research and engage participants in debating its social and political implications. 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 by internationally renowned artist Mat Fraser.

Mat Fraser standing in front of a painting

Medical collections in museums contain thousands of objects that are intimately connected with disabled peoples’ lives and with a broader disability history.  However, modes of display and interpretation tend to privilege the perspective of clinicians and medical historians and frequently omit or marginalise the experiences of disabled people, resulting in incomplete or partial narratives.

This highly engaging, witty, unsettling and profoundly moving performance blended research, personal testimony, object stories, comedy, film, music hall pastiche and even rapping 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.

Public and Media Engagement

Live post show discussions, online and social media and evaluation with attenders were used to capture responses and open up dialogue that will, in turn, be used to inform future research and engagement practice. Further details of the public response to Cabinet of Curiosities will be made available once the evaluation, currently underway, has been completed.

The performance generated considerable interest from mainstream, disability arts and theatre media:

Mat Fraser at a lectern
  • 'Fraser…is helping to change the way the debate is framed: the live performance meets the dusty artefact and tries to personalise it; past meets present' Lyn Gardner, The Guardian
  • 'This is one hell of a lecture' London City Nights
  • 'very entertaining even as it conveys with great power the more misguided, outrageous and degrading aspects of this particular history' Ben Walters, NotTelevision
  • 'it is perhaps now more urgent than ever for a performer like Mat Fraser to be explaining the three models of disability to a mainstream audience' Colin Hambrook, Disability Arts Online
  • 'Museums have a vital role to play in changing society’s attitude to disability: our archives don’t just speak, they shout about it' Richard Sandell and Mat Fraser, Guardian Culture Pros
  • '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

You can watch an excerpt of Cabinet of curiosities: how disability was kept in a box.

Logos from the various institutions involved

Sam Alberti, Director of Museums and Archives at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, talks about the importance of the Stories of a Different Kind project to the Hunterian Museum:

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