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> > > Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the museum

By Colin Hambrook

book cover

Book cover by Chris Rush, Swim II, conte crayon on paper.

This book is first-off targeted at artists, curators, historians, academics etc., working within the museum sector - but actually it is of enormous importance to anyone with an interest in disability rights and disability culture within a global context.

Leafing backwards and forwards through the nineteen chapters that comprise this volume, Re-Presenting Disability contains a cross-section of stories and studies of of ideas, projects, experience and programmes in museum locations throughout the world that have addressed - or not addressed the cultural representation of disabled people. In so doing this volume looks at the inclusion - as well as the absence - of disability-related narratives in museum and gallery displays.

One of the most positive essays, Agents at Angkor by Lain Hart, gives an insight into how disability can extraordinarily become part of a tourist package - despite and because of the authorities promoting the World Heritage site at the Angkor Archeological Park, Cambodia.

Hart effectively tells two stories - that of how The Angkor Association for the Disabled set up employment for disabled musicians and artists at the temple of Banteay Kdei; and that of the nearby Land Mine Museum. Set up by Aki Ra - a child-soldier who had served in the Khmer Rouge the Land Mine Museum is a place for educating tourists with biographies of those affected by the atrocity of the regime. It is also a home for children disabled by the mines and a resource dedicated to creating further opportunities for education and employment.

Remembering Goodna was an exhibition held at the museum of Brisbane telling the history of the largest mental hospital in Queensland, Australia, from the perspective of the inmates, workers and the community which built up around it over its 150 year history. Joanna Besley and Carol Low's essay explores the closure the exhibition, allowed surviving inmates and their families in the process of involving them in its development. - 'an opportunity for commemoration and mourning in a context of public acknowledgement and also for reclaiming their lives.'

The Red Wheelchair in the White Snowdrift, by Geraldine Chimirri-Russell tells the story of how The Nickle Arts Museum in Calgary, Canada, got to display an exhibition dedicated to cartoonist, journalist, politician and activist Everett Soop - "the pit bull terrior of native journalism." Having grown up on a reservation in southern Alberta Soop became a campaigner for the rights of disabled people - and in particular the Aboriginal disabled community. The essay, like many in this volume concludes with a section on how disability-related exhibitions affect - or not, in this case - the culture of the museum in question.

Many of the essays are provocative. Ghosts in the War Museum by Ana Carden-Coyne is an in-depth study of the context within which Museums of war, conflict and genocide operate. She looks at a range of Museums in Rwanda, US, Cambodia, Viet-Nam and the UK commenting on the ways that cultural representations of disability have been either written out of the narratives on display or are sterotyped to embody archetypal victims or heroes.

She criticises the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington DC) permanent exhibitions for missing "the chance to educate visitors on the way that cultural representations of disability were continually circulated to reinforce the Third Reich's racial goals. Moreover the significance of euthanasia targeted at disabled people - beginning with German 'Aryan' children - in framing the final solution remains a significantly underdeveloped area for education."

Providing an alternate viewpoint - Shari Werb and Tari Squire's chapter on the same Holocaust Museum looks at how author, attorney and disabled activist - Harriet McBryde Johnson - transformed the museums approach to giving an insight into the historical significance of the dressing-up of murder, as medicine, by the Nazis. The essay tells the story of how a museum program entitled Deadly Medicine opened the doors of the museum to a new audience of disabled people and challenged visitors and staff members, alike to "expand their thinking about the value of life."

Chia-Li Chen documents the story of The Losheng Sanatorium in Taipei Country, Taiwan. The sanatorium effectively became a prison when it was established in 1930 to confine and treat patients with leprosy. When plans were made in 2002 for the relocation of its residents to make way for redevelopment, an interpretive museum was established in the centre, by the residents in a public battle to tell their story and to remain where they had lived for the duration of most of their lives.

In googling The Losheng Sanatorium I came across some documentation of the political action which took place to save the hospital. The Engage Media website contains some video footage of public demonstrations and bloggers detailing developments of the unfolding story behind the fight.

I've presented a flavour of the research documented here by practitioners and academics from different disciplinary, institutional and cultural contexts. Much of the research gives a more academic insight into the opportunities and dilemmas of using museums practice as a way of furthering the agenda for 'social inclusion.'

There are many essays on UK museums practice, particularly the nine interpretive interventions that comprised the University of Leicester's Rethinking Disability Representation, which engaged Museums and Galleries up and down the UK from 2006-2008, in programmes which gave museum audiences an in-siders view of disability. The editors, in particular provide informative comment on how they see museum practice developing in relationship to disability.

David Heveys account of one of the Rethinking Disability programs is fascinating. Behind the Shadow of Merrick - a film project Hevey made with the Royal London Hospital Archives and Museum - tells the account of his research into Joseph Merrick's life and the artefacts he left behind. His film explores the feelings that the memory of the 'Elephant Man' evoke in three disabled people interviewed for this seventeen minute long dramatic film.

Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the museum is published by Routledge Price: £23.99 £21.59. ISBN: 978-0-415-49473-1

Go to the University of Leicester website to find out more about The Research Centre for Museums and Galleries whose Director, Jocelyn Dodd is one of the editors and contributors to Re-Presenting Disability