Academic journal article Hagar

Between the Therapeutic and the Democratic? Mediating Disability Memories Online1

Academic journal article Hagar

Between the Therapeutic and the Democratic? Mediating Disability Memories Online1

Article excerpt

Introduction

As scholars in the social sciences and humanities have theorized, we are currently experiencing the rise of an auto/biographical society tied to new forms of digital technologies and consumer culture in which "life stories are everywhere" (Plummer, 2001:78). In this new "confessional society" (Bauman, 2007), boundaries separating the private and the public are being blurred, with citizens demonstrating an increasing sense of obligation or virtue in sharing personal information about themselves in the public realm, including through much frequented social media sites. In turn, public institutions in the West are increasingly inviting citizens to "tell your story" in cooperation with them, drawing on new media technologies and platforms to do so (Cameron and Kenderdine, 2007; UNESCO, 2003). Explaining this shift, museum and heritage scholars have suggested that facilitating audiences to present narratives and images about their own lives can demonstrate "social inclusion" pathways- of particular importance to engaging otherwise marginalized groups such as those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. Notably, such groups have historically remained outside of the core audience (and representative agents) of museums, archives and galleries in the West and demand new strategies for inclusion and engagement (Dodd et al., 2008; Sandell, Dodd and Garland-Thomson, 2010; Tlili, 2008).2

In her study of several museums in the UK and US, Thumim (2010, 2012) scrutinizes the aims, functions and outcomes of recent museum projects incorporating public self-representation activities in their cultural programming. She identifies two main drivers behind these projects: a therapeutic function, focusing on issues of self-expression and identity building for diverse audiences, and a democratic function, based on assumptions that greater visibility of marginalized communities, using online technologies, equates to greater democratic participation and active citizenship. Appeals to such drivers are woven throughout museum mission statements and policy documents. While therapeutic and democratic drivers are invariably intertwined, Thumim highlights how such practices may nevertheless end up competing with each other, with the less politically transformative, self-expressive therapeutic function taking precedence. In this vein, Thumim questions how far "visibility" and "democratic participation" can be achieved in top-down museum initiatives that mandate people to perform their "ordinariness" (perhaps even their marginality), without connecting these initiatives to broader social and political processes of democratic participation. The manner in which public institutions maintain their control of representations, by compiling certain narratives and frameworks to mediate public self-representations, must also be considered. Thumim provides the example of museum initiatives that ask participants to upload their photos and memories of particular museum objects, while the authority and expertise to select and curate these objects remains with the institution (2010:296). For Thumim, merely participating in public-facing initiatives is not enough to substantiate democratic claims: there needs to be a more manifest engagement with questions of power and agency.

Engaging critically with Thumim's findings, this paper draws on empirical research on two projects re-mediating disability life stories online: the Museum of the Person virtual museum (www.museumoftheperson.org, Bloomington, US) and the Envisioning New Meanings of Disability and Difference project (www.envisioningnewmeanings.ca, Toronto, Canada). These initiatives can be mapped within a broader shift in museums and galleries in particular reengaging with disability issues and forms of representation (Dodd et al., 2008; Sandell et al., 2010; Sandell and Fraser, 2014). These two case studies have been selected for their focus on people with disabilities self-representing themselves within an institutional context. …

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