National Museum Wales is set to explore disability and its representation in museums through a new series of collaborations. Sioned Hughes, head of public history at St Fagans National History museum, explains why…
Disability has never been fully explored as a subject by Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.
As in most museums, we have collections that contain relevant material but their significance to disabled people has never been investigated and only very few have been displayed. Until now.
On October 10, as part of the Museums Association Conference, objects that represent disability from National Museum Wales’ history collections will take centre stage at the Wales Millennium Centre.
As part of a performance by Mat Fraser – Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept In A Box, they will provide the hooks for an exploration of disability and its representation in museums.
It promises to be challenging and engaging in a way that many museum professionals have not seen before – especially at a conference.
My colleagues and I met Mat last May when he travelled to St Fagans to look at our collections with Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd from the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at Leicester University.
They had worked with Mat before on various museum projects, and I knew that Mat had already delved into the collections at the Huntarian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Physicians and the Science Museum.
As we looked for objects in preparation for their visit, it became clear that we had a wealth of material across a broad range of collections, but no documentation, no personal stories about their owners or makers, and no information about why they were made or how they were used.
Curators in the past tended not to record these details and often collected objects as just objects – not as evidence of a person’s experiences or feelings. Objects had also been catalogued using unspecific classifications, making the job of finding them very difficult.
A 1920s psychiatric patient’s dress, possibly from Hensol hospital, was found under the heading: Women’s clothes/dresses. An early example of a wheelchair was catalogued under Transport.
A brown linen frock coat from 1750 worn by Hopcyn Bach, a person of restricted growth who was shown publicly for money, was catalogued as Persons by alphabet.
While showing these objects to Mat, Richard and Jocelyn, we realised that it was our responsibility as curators working at St Fagans today to create new narratives for these silent, hidden collections.
By creating opportunities for more disabled people to be involved in the interpretation and display of museum collections, we can contribute to a broader public understanding of disability and in rethinking attitudes.
St Fagans is undergoing a redevelopment project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund to transform its facilities and galleries. The Making History project aims to transform St Fagans culturally as an organisation too.
A new Public History Unit has been set up to engage people with their past in new, creative and imaginative ways and to bring new meaning and diverse narratives to our collections.
Collaborating with Mat Fraser certainly fits this bill.
Our programme of collaboration and co-production has already started. We are working with Mencap Cymru on its project Hidden Now Heard. It will be recording the hidden histories of six long-stay hospitals in Wales.
More than 80 people will be interviewed from across Wales.
Their testimonies will help to uncover the impact of care policies on many lives between 1913 and 2006, when the last long-stay institutions were closed.
We are also working with our youth and diversity forums as we research and rediscover our disability collections. In a recent workshop, we revisited that psychiatric patient’s dress with our youth forum.
One participant stated: “This is interesting. It didn’t belong to anyone and everyone wore the same, but you could say that this dress represents all of the female patients at that hospital.”
Collaborating with diverse communities in different ways has also resulted in the creation of several popup museums at unexpected locations – from a shopping centre to a cathedral.
Our latest pop up is a partnership between the Cardiff Story Museum, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Steered by the public who have something to say about Cardiff, it will be created and displayed at the Wales Millennium Centre as part of the Welsh Museums Festival and Museums Association Conference.
The aim of the pop up is to bring people together to share stories, history, experiences and objects and to create a democratic museum about Cardiff in 48 hours. The process shows that anyone can create a museum about anything, anywhere.