“In the past we would just be invisible”
Commissioned from RCMG by Colchester Museums - and funded by the Museums, Archives and Libraries Council (MLA) through the Designation Challenge Fund and the East of England Museum Hub Specialisms Fund and Colchester Borough Council - "In the past we would just be invisible" was designed to explore the perceptions and attitudes to heritage and the past of disabled people who live in and around Colchester.
The research grew out of lively contemporary debates about what it means to be a disabled person and how society treats those with impairments. As public institutions, museums were becoming increasingly conscious that disabled people are part of their audiences.
Aims and objectives
Colchester Museums have a considerable national reputation in terms of disability access and consultation and having adopted a holistic, institution-wide approach to the understanding of issues related to disabled people. The organisation wished to go beyond the now contested 'common sense' ways in which disabled people have been exhibited or ignored in the past and to explore new ways of representation and interpretation. From the basis of research they wanted to look for conceptual pointers and ideas that would help them to build upon existing ideas and develop new work in this area, guided by the following questions:
How far is the relevance of history and the past shaped by experience of disability?
What part do disabled people feel museums can play in the representation of disabled people in the past and today?
Qualitative research methods, including interviews and discussions, formed the basis of this research, producing a rich and geographically grounded portrayal of the attitudes of a particular group towards history, heritage and museums.
Our participants took it as given that history was important; however there was not an exact relationship between the value of history and its relevance to the individual. Interest in history was seen as more of a personal choice. The newness of such research for participants needs to be considered when analysing their responses; this research deals with issues that people have not been asked to think about before nor do they think about on a daily basis.
It was clear that participants agreed that disabled people are invisible or misrepresented in museum collections. Commonly recurring stereotypes that see disabled people as pitiable and pathetic, as freaks, as objects of ridicule, as a burden or as incapable can be identified. However, there was not a single collective viewpoint from our participants, nor were they were altogether confident or assertive about presenting the history of disabled people in museums. Participants had no models of what museums could do to show the history and culture of disabled people. For those participants who demonstrated a strong, collective identity, like the Deaf community, there was a greater clarity in terms of the role that museums could play in representing their culture and history.
No easy answers have been revealed from our research into how disabled people view the roles of museums in representing their history. The greatest challenge for museums is negotiating between diverse positions.