Cabinet of Curiosities: how disability was kept in a box was an entertaining, challenging and inspiring event held at the RCP last Monday evening, 20 January.
Mat Fraser, critically acclaimed writer and actor, delivered a captivating performance accompanied by music, images, and museum objects. He demonstrated to the audience how disabled people were seen – and in some cases continue to be seen – by museums and by the medical professions.
Fraser researched and told ‘hidden histories’: the real-life stories behind images of individuals like Matthew Buchinger (pictured below). In doing so, Fraser skilfully highlighted the flaws in medical and charitable approaches to the interpretation of disability.
People with partners, families, livelihoods, entire lives portrayed as a medical abnormality to be cured or a social problem to be pitied.
But it wasn’t all castigation. The event also celebrated the exemplary work undertaken by some museums to enable disabled people to blow open the ‘black box’ of interpretation and reclaim the power of self-representation as fully rounded human beings. These new approaches view disability as a footnote, not a headline. Audiences – doctors, museum staff/visitors and society in general – see the person first and foremost, not the disability.
This is not to say that older methods should now be swept under the carpet. Fraser stressed that history cannot be told honestly without describing and contextualising events such as freak shows: the whole story about the representation of disabled people needs to be told.
I overheard some medical students who attended resolving to learn from these projects and to take a new approach to their work with disabled people. As a museum studies student myself, I now share that resolve.
Nora Ni Dhomhnaill, museum volunteer
The award-winning RCP exhibition Re-framing disability portraits: from the Royal College of Physicians has toured the UK. Please contact us if you are interested in hosting Re-framing disability at your venue.