A still from the film Pity by the performance and video artist Katherine Araniello, which is on display in the Wellcome Collection's Being Human gallery. Araniello developed the performance piece in which she dressed up as a collection box used outside charity shops in the 1970s depicting a child with cerebral palsy. Through her performance, Araniello challenged perceptions of disability and charity.

Museums urged to address unethical representation of disability

Rebecca Atkinson, 13.02.2020
New toolkit shows how to apply to social model to displays and interpretation
The Wellcome Collection in London and the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester have published new guidance outlining how museums can take an ethical approach to interpreting disability and difference in gallery spaces.

An ethical approach to interpreting disability and difference can be downloaded as a pdf and aims to be a starting point for museums to address “the invisibility and unethical interpretation of disability and disabled people”.

The guidance states that despite museums’ desire to create inclusive spaces and narratives, disabled people and stories are still largely absent from displays: “Where they do appear, they are often portrayed in ways that reflect deeply-held, negative attitudes towards physical and mental difference that sit uncomfortably with 21st-century approaches to disability rights, equality and respect for all."

To help address this, the guidance shows how the social model of disability can be applied by museums to create authentic portrayals of physical and mental difference and disabled people’s lives.

It gives examples of how disability and difference are traditionally approached by museums, and then suggests alternative and more ethical approaches.

For example, rather than focus on what a disabled person can’t do, the social model of disability looks at the barriers that society imposes. And rather than giving privilege to the medical professional’s perspective of disability, the social model focuses on lived experiences and individuals’ voices.

Richard Sandell, the co-director of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at Leicester, said: “We need a wholescale shift in the way we think about [disability representation]. 

"Projects that address the under and misrepresentation of disabled people are good – but we need to take this work and push it through all of our displays. Disabled people are sometimes referred to as the world’s largest minority – why then are portrayals of difference largely absent from most museums’ displays?”

Zoe Partington, a cultural consultant, said: “This document is very welcome and the start of providing a framework and clear overview of the way disabled people are disabled by the cultural systems. The social model of disability is not new but many cultural institutions have not been aware of it or understood how to apply it practically.”

The report is part of a wider collaboration between the two organisations to consider the challenges surrounding embedding the representation of disability in permanent galleries, and “disrupting” previously unquestioned exhibition narratives.

This approach has been put into practice in the Wellcome’s redeveloped Being Human galleries and will also inform Leicester’s work with the National Trust to explore disability history in different heritage sites and the British Museum in London.