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‘If we’re going to get looked at anyway, we might as well get paid for it’
11 November 2011
Leicester, University of
‘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 discussing the representation of disabled people, as part of a new exhibition currently showing at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.
Re-framing disability: portraits from the Royal College of Physicians features 28 historical portraits of disabled people held within the Royal College of Physicians (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.
Commenting on the historical prints and modern attitudes towards disability, focus group participant Sophie Partridge, said:
‘Now we have programmes … where [disabled] people are trying to prove themselves … a lot of it is about the normality thing, trying to prove, “Well I can do what … a normal person can do.” What if you can’t do any of that? Where does that leave you? Are you still a valid human being? But then what makes a valid human being … ?’
Tim Gebbels also took part in the focus groups and whilst discussing contemporary views of disability said:
‘There was a programme about disabled people on television and … I heard the producer talking on radio. She was saying [that] … disability’s a very humorous sort of thing, [and] we need to give people license to laugh at it.
‘… why do we need to give non-disabled people license to do anything with it? I do feel this pressure all the time; if you’re blind you must produce funny stories about it. We are still required to define ourselves by our impairments and that’s all we’re supposed to be interested in.’
The innovative exhibition tackles largely unchartered territory in combining both historical and contemporary analyses of the portraits which date back as far as 1634. One of the images depicts conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker (1811-1874) who famously left their native Thailand (Siam) to exhibit themselves across the world and gave the term ‘Siamese twins’ to popular culture.
The thought provoking exhibition raises questions such as:
Are we as curious about difference as we were 400 years ago?
Are there more positive images of disabled people today?
Do contemporary disabled people have more control over how they are represented?
27 disabled participants from across the UK took part in focus groups to discuss the historical portraits and analyse modern day depictions of disability. Participants were invited to be filmed and have their photographs taken, the results of which now feature alongside the historical portraits. The photographic portraits were created by disabled photographer Lynn Weddle, who used a shutter release cable to give the sitter control over how they appeared on camera. A short film interviewing the participants was also created by Deaf film makers Ted Evans and Bim Ajadi.
Commenting on the exhibition, Richard Sandell, Head of the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, said:
‘This ground breaking exhibition addresses the cultural invisibility of disabled people in traditional museum displays, empowers disabled people to take control of their own histories and identities and offers viewers new ways of thinking about society’s attitudes towards difference. It is a tremendously useful resource for our teaching and research activities and we are especially delighted to host the exhibition since it was inspired by research carried out by our own Research Centre for Museums and Galleries.’
Bridget Telfer, project curator from the Royal College of Physicians, said:
‘This exhibition has drawn upon recent work re-examining the hidden histories of disability in museum collections, notably the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries’ (RCMG) ‘Rethinking disability representation’ project (2006-8). This RCMG project cemented two points for our exhibition: the necessity of including disabled people in all aspects of the project (crucial for fostering a sense of ownership), and the importance of finding out about the lives of the historical people portrayed (so they can be seen as parents, husbands, artists and professionals, and not be purely defined by their impairment).’
Re-framing disability: Portraits from the Royal College of Physicians will be at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester until January 2012 and is presented in accessible formats including an audio description, audio points, tactile images with Braille.
The original ‘Siamese twins’: An image of Chang and Eng (1811–74) that features in Reframing Disability at the University of Leicester . © Royal College of Physicians
Johann Kleyser was born without arms and is known to have exhibited himself in London in 1718. He was a highly intelligent and gifted man. Visitors who came to see him were entertained by Kleyser writing in five different languages with his mouth and feet. He also shaved and combed his hair with his right foot, walked on his two big toes and balanced on one toe. He would hop on one leg whilst the other was draped around his neck. The small size of this image suggests that it was produced as a promotional handbill or souvenir. © Royal College of Physicians
Joseph Clark lived in Pall Mall, London, during the first half of the 17th century. He was a contortionist and described as ‘the most extraordinary Posture Master that ever existed who exhibited every species of deformity and dislocation’. His nickname was ‘the wandering tumour’. Clark entertained by performing feats of contortion and could be hunch backed, pot bellied or sharp breasted. He would trick people such as tailors who had measured his body for clothes, by claiming that they had measured him incorrectly. He would also beg as a disabled person from people he knew, deceiving them so much that they didn’t recognise him. © Royal College of Physicians