Re-framing disability

11 May 2011

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How can museums present historical images of disability without repeating the sensationalism of the past or ignoring the lives of disabled people? The curator of a new exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians, Bridget Telfer, explains how she approached a unique project.

‘If we’re going to get looked at anyway, we might as well get paid for it.’ These are the words of Sophie Partridge, a disabled focus group participant, who took part in a new exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), funded by the Wellcome Trust People Awards.

Re-framing disability: portraits from the Royal College of Physicians features 28 historical portraits of disabled people held within the RCP collections, set next to the images and voices of disabled people discussing the portraits and their identities today. The striking historical portraits show disabled men and women of all ages and from all sections of society, many of whom earned a living exhibiting themselves to the public.

A report from 2004 examining collections held within UK museums, called Buried in the footnotes,  revealed a wealth of material relating to the lives of disabled people. But few museums display such items. Even when these objects are publicly exhibited, museums rarely acknowledge the link with disability, and even fewer museums consult disabled people when creating their displays. Why is this? A common reason is a fear of creating offence. So how should museums tackle the ‘darker side’ of disability history, the lack of agency, the sensationalism and suppression? Would exhibits inadvertently encourage audiences to stare in a way that was reminiscent of a freak show?

I’m someone that likes a challenge so I was attracted to the idea of exhibiting the RCP’s historical portraits of disabled people – images that are unique, artistically interesting, and have never been on public display before. Right from the start I felt there needed to be two main objectives: to include disabled people in all aspects of the project, and to find out about the lives of the historical people portrayed.

The first point is crucial to develop a sense of ownership – this project was to be about disabled people’s history and could not be curated solely by a non-disabled team. With the help of Shape, a disability-led arts organisation in Kentish Town, we set about recruiting disabled participants with an interest in the arts and history for a series of focus groups in July 2010.  The second point was vital in challenging negative stereotypes. Unearthing the lives of the people portrayed allows them to be seen by visitors as parents, husbands, artists and professionals, and not be purely defined by their impairment.

Perhaps surprisingly, research by medical historians Carole Reeves and Julie Anderson revealed that many of the sitters in the portraits had independence and control over their lives and also earned a good income from exhibiting. Matthew Buchinger (b.1674), for example, who describes himself as a ‘wonderful little man of but 29 inches high, born without hands, feet or thighs’ was paid 50 guineas – equivalent to over £3,000 today – for his exquisite self portrait pictured above. Amazingly the curls of his wig are composed of the lettering of six Biblical psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. This celebrated artist’s work can be found today in the Harleian Collection of manuscripts at the British Library.

Another image from the RCP’s collection depicts the most famous conjoined twins in history – Chang and Eng (1811-74) from Siam – hence the term ‘Siamese twins’. They are playing chess with a Portuguese naturalist who claims that their characters are similar and their minds and wills are as one. But this was not so. Chang and Eng played the system. They were discovered as children in Siam by a showman and travelled the world on the exhibition circuits. They arrived in London in 1829 aged 18, but within ten years they fired their agent and were successfully managing their own careers becoming extremely wealthy. They became US citizens, married two sisters and fathered 22 children between them.

The project has also created a legacy of exciting positive portrayals of disabled people today – a film interviewing the 27 disabled participants was made by Deaf film makers Ted Evans and Bim Ajadi, and disabled photographer Lynn Weddle produced  photographic portraits of participants using a shutter release cable which gave control to the sitter: they could press the button and take their own portrait. It is the inclusion of disabled participants that has been critical to the success of this exhibition. Only through their voices and views may we hope (in the words of one participant) ‘to bring a humanistic view of disability to a wider audience’ and encourage ‘acceptance and celebration of difference’.

Re-framing disability: portraits from the Royal College of Physicians is at the Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrew’s Place, London, NW1 4LE, until 8 July 2011, and will then go on tour.

Bridget Telfer is project curator at the Royal College of Physicians.