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"In the past we would just be invisible": research into the attitudes of disabled people to museums and heritage

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posted on 2007-07-13, 10:22 authored by Jocelyn Dodd, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Annie Delin, Ceri Jones, Renaissance, Libraries and Archives Council Museums, Colchester Museums
KEY FINDINGS: DEFINING DISABILITY • It is others - disability campaigners, charities, governments, museums - who have defined disabled people as a distinct group. Individual disabled people will not automatically relate to these definitions. • Self-identification by groups is of crucial importance, even if others may find it uncomfortable or challenging. • Deaf people, on the whole, want to be recognised as a cultural-linguistic minority. They do not always identify themselves as disabled or as part of the disabled community. MAKING CONTACT • The difficulties and complexities of engaging with different audiences and groups that museums categorise as disabled must not be underestimated. • There is a need to recognise the ‘everydayness’ of disability whereby the margin becomes part of the mainstream. HOW FAR ARE DISABILITY AND IDENTITY LINKED? • The relationship between disability and identity was complex and often directly related to personal experience. • A political identity is the preserve of a minority. We did not feel that participants in this research study felt a strong identity as disabled people except for those participants from the Deaf community. ATTITUDES TOWARDS HISTORY, HERITAGE AND MUSEUMS • Our participants took it as ‘given’ that history was important; however there was not an exact relationship between the value of history and its relevance to the individual. Interest in history was seen as more of a personal choice • The ‘newness’ of such research for participants needs to be considered when analysing their responses; this research deals with issues that people have not been asked to think about before nor do they think about on a daily basis (MIS)REPRESENTATION OF DISABLED PEOPLE IN MUSEUMS • Disabled people are invisible or misrepresented in museum collections. • Commonly recurring stereotypes that see disabled people as pitiable and pathetic, as freaks, as objects of ridicule, as a burden or as incapable can be identified. • There was not a single collective viewpoint from our participants, nor were they were altogether confident or assertive about presenting the history of disabled people in museums. • The lack of a strong identification with the political meaning of ‘disabled’ tended to be linked with a lack of clarity and confidence about how disabled people should be represented in museums. • For those participants who demonstrated a strong, collective identity, like the Deaf community, there was a greater clarity in terms of the role that museums could play in representing their culture and history. ADDRESSING THE IMBALANCE • Participants had no models of what museums could do to show the history and culture of disabled people. • No easy answers have been revealed from our research into how disabled people view the roles of museums in representing their history. The greatest challenge for museums is negotiating between diverse positions.


From the summary: Colchester Museums commissioned this research project. It was funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) through the Designation Challenge Fund and the East of England Museum Hub Specialisms Fund. Colchester Borough Council also contributed to the funding.



Leicester, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, 2006

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Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester

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This report is also available as a Word document from the RCMG website, at



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