‘Our Objects’ shines a light on objects in museum collections with a connection to disability. Through a series of fascinating blog and social media posts, Jenni has highlighted the breadth of these objects across institutions from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to the Science Museum Group. We caught up with her to discuss her motivations, her research process and some of her highlights from the SMG collection.
Can you tell us more about ‘Our Objects’ and why you started the project?
I am really fascinated by how disability is represented by museums. Disability has always been part of humanity – an estimated one billion people have a disability today – but it is often overlooked in projects otherwise focused on diversity.
I wanted to create something that examined the range of physical traces that are left behind by disabled people – to show that we have always been here, and that we have left evidence in all cultures and times. I also wanted to encourage people to think about the social causes and impacts of disability – the barriers that people face, and how these can be removed.
How many objects have you shared so far?
So far, I have tweeted over two thousand objects and images created by, for and about disabled people from museums across the globe; from recent 3-D printed limbs to prosthetics from ancient Egypt.
Can you tell us about your process for identifying objects on online collection database?
To find objects, I look on online collections, searching for a range of terms: “disabled”, “disability”, “prosthesis”, “braille”, etc. I then can click through various objects, finding ones that I think will be interesting. I try and make sure I’m using a range of objects from different times and places, although sometimes I will tie things in with major events, such as finding objects connected to the Paralympics when this is taking place.
A common problem for anyone searching databases is that the person who inputs the information may not consider that people might search for objects related to disability as a topic and therefore decide not to tag for that term, making it harder to find these objects.
Also, historical objects that are linked to disability often have little information preserved about them. This may mean that the connections with disabled lives are not made. When such information does exist, it often doesn’t have the names of disabled users or creators attached as these often were not recorded. As such, I can highlight the objects, but can only make general links to the lives they touched.
You’ve highlighted some intriguing items from our collection. Can you share some of your favourites?
There are so many fascinating objects in the Science Museum Group collection that I really struggled to pick just a few.
This series of legs made for Tracey Bayman is one of my favourite sets of objects because they show clearly her personality and mark her growth from childhood to adulthood. Unlike many anonymous objects, these ones have a known user, who had input on their design.
This top hat has no obvious link to disability – however there were widespread medical issues that emerged for those involved in the creation of felt for hats like this, due to an exposure to mercury. This led to the phrase “mad as a hatter” as people developed neurological symptoms from exposure. Objects like this show the link between working conditions and disability. In doing so, this links to the idea of the social model – that disability is created by society and its attitudes, as well as by an individual’s impairment.
Toys which represent disability and diversity are becoming increasingly common, and I love this soft toy for what it would have meant for its user.
What are your ambitions for this work?
My main goal is just to get people to think about how widespread disability is, and how evidence of disability can be found everywhere. I’d love to encourage people to look at the past differently, and realise that people with disabilities have always existed and always been a part of society.
I’ve just finished a PhD examining how museums represent disability. I’m not sure yet where this work will lead me, but I’m looking forwards to finding out.