By Colin Hambrook
When the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester asked actor and performance artist Mat Fraser to create a show exploring the medical profession's approach to disability by responding to the collections of the Hunterian Museum, the Science Museum, and the Royal College of Physicians he came up with The Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept in a Box.
The RCMG have an emphasis on making their work available to the widest possible audience so the latest project initiated by Jocelyn Dodd and Richard Sandell is designed to make academia accessible and entertaining. Since 2000 the RCMG have published an impressive library of research papers, reports and table-top publications examining the role of museum and gallery collections in educating the general public about disability; looking from a social model perspective, at approaches taken by curators and archivists.
For example the 2004 research initiative Buried in the Footnotes established a challenge to museums to think about disability as an integral part of any collection. In 2008 the Rethinking Disability Representation initiative saw nine projects rolled out in museums and art galleries across the country showcasing interpretations of elements within the collections from a disabled person's perspective. In 2010 the excellent Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the museum – published by Routledge – considered the departments work amongst a series of essays exploring curatorial practices within a global context.
With their most recent venture Cabinet of Curiosities the RCMG gave Mat Fraser licence to create a performance piece from the impressions he drew from the museums’ collections. In collaboration with experts in medical history, museums and disability, Mat offers what he describes as a cross between a funky lecture, a powerpoint and a one-man show, using personal anecdote as a tool for commenting on the potential for museums to support social justice and equality.
Talking about the exhibits that affected him personally, Mat said: "For me looking at the weird collection of rejected limbs alongside images of boffins desperately trying to make these thalidomide kids look normal was melodramatically revolting. It was poignant because I know some of the people who had that enforced normality treatment imposed on them as kids." Not surprisingly, the comedy that Mat had hoped to write was soon put aside. "You can make humour out of anything," he says, "but what I found just wasn't funny."
For example Mat found drawers and drawers of trepanning tools in the Science museum, but says it was only his pointing out what these objects would have meant to anyone with a mental health issue 200 years ago, that the realisation dawned on the museum staff that these objects are indeed disability artefacts.
As Mat investigated the collections more, so his imagination was stirred by how much is unknowable: "It is fairly straightforward to imagine being disabled and poor in late 1800s, but it is difficult to understand how to relate to a time before that. When you see a prosthetic leg that's been used over and again and the more you look, the more you realise that it contains the histories of several disabled people’s lives, then you begin to appreciate what these objects mean with a deeper understanding."
The performance promises to explore the potential for museums to tackle prejudice and engage audiences in a debate about human rights. And so one of the contrasts Mat brings attention to, is the parallel between a Nazi propaganda image of a doctor in uniform looking benevolently at a tragic-looking ‘mental patient’ under a banner stating "this man costs the state 300,000 Deutschmarks", with a reworking of the same poster to include a reference to Atos, the company engaged by the government to decide who is and who isn't impaired enough to receive state benefits.
We like to think there has been change and that there is now more awareness of disability, but when you consider how often the media hammers home the same values, aimed at alienating and blaming disabled people for all the ills of the economy, then you realize how superficial any change over the last 30 years has been.
And so 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. As Lyn Gardner states in her Guardian blog: "Even the presence of Mat on stage in the very heart of this citadel of the medical profession says a great deal."