Museums, Society, Inequality

By Richard Sandell | Go to book overview

6

Buried in the footnotes: the absence of disabled people in the collective imagery of our past

Annie Delin

Any casual visitor to museums in Britain would assume that disabled people occupied a specific range of roles in the nation’s history. The absence of disabled people as creators of arts, in images and in artefacts, and their presence in selected works reinforcing cultural stereotypes, conspire to present a narrow perspective of the existence of disability in history. What impact might this narrow and distorted view be having on the society we live in today?

Bombarded by the requirements of legislation, by forcefully presented campaigns for change and by direct contact with disabled people with a new sense of self, non-disabled individuals could feel that history has not prepared them for the existence of disabled individuals. Non-disabled people will continue to be shocked by meeting disabled people with disfigurements that were depicted centuries ago, but are now never shown. They may expect that certain individuals will be dangerous, weak, evil or cherubic by association with artistic metaphor and biblical imagery. They may be surprised at achievement among disabled artists because they have never known it to exist among the artists of the past.

Disabled people may feel dissociated from the culture of their country because of the absence of their historical peers in what is shown. They may feel that their existence today is new and unexplained by comparison with the sanitised population of the past. They may have low expectations of their possible status and achievements, through absence of clear role models in history showing what is possible. They may be passive in a dominated role in modern society, unaware that there was ever a different perspective or more accepting view of disabled people in society.

None of the above may be true, because the thesis cannot be tested in the existing museum context. It is impossible to provide comparators where representation is detailed, balanced and well signified, in order to study different views of museum visitors before and after exposure to the historical existence of disabled people. This paper sets out to take an overview of the way in which disabled people are present or absent in museum displays, and to question what the implications of that presence/absence might be - both in terms of where it stems from, and where it leads to.

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