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Biomedicine in museums

CFP: Re-Presenting Disability: Museums and the Politics of Display

By December 17, 2007No Comments

Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd — who are currently co-directing a two-year research project on ‘Rethinking Disability Representation’ in the Dept of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester — are soliciting some 20 “original, provocative, timely and scholarly papers” to

explore issues surrounding the cultural representation of disabled people and, more particularly, the inclusion (as well as the marked absence) of disability-related narratives in museum and gallery displays.

Here’s their synopsis to the edited volume they are planning together with Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Emory University), titled ‘Re-Presenting Disability: Museums and the Politics of Display’:

Whilst museums and galleries provide the focus for this collection of writings, contributions from leading-edge researchers in disability and cultural studies – concerned with related areas of interest and different sites of representation – will serve to illuminate debates and representational practices within museums and museum studies.

Research in recent years has highlighted the constitutive or generative capacities of museums – their potential to shape, rather than simply reflect, social relations and realities. Museum displays, and the representations of difference embodied within them, have social effects and consequences.

Very often these effects have been understood to be negative. Museums have been identified as agencies which both shape and reinforce dominant (oppressive, discriminatory) understandings of difference by excluding and marginalising (through elision) or by constructing representations that are reductive, essentialising and often negatively stereotypical. By casting racial, gender, physical and other ‘variations’ as inferior or deviant, museums have privileged ways of seeing that have made prejudiced understandings of difference both more perceptible and permissible.

In recent years, however, there has been growing interest amongst both museum practitioners and researchers in the potential for museums to develop exhibitions and educational initiatives which attempt to open up possibilities for mutual respect and understanding between different social groups. An increasing number of museums have experimented with new forms of practice – collaboration and consultation with diverse communities; the staging of interpretive interventions purposefully designed to mitigate, complicate or subvert prevalent stereotypes; innovative approaches to interpretation and exhibition design; the development of more inclusive ways of working and so on – which aim to generate for visitors (and society more broadly), alternative, more equitable ways of seeing, thinking and talking about difference.

The last two decades have seen a proliferation of projects designed to redress the exclusion and misrepresentation of women, of minority ethnic and indigenous communities and, rather more rarely, of sexual minorities and different faith groups. However, despite relatively widespread professional and academic interest in these ‘hidden histories’, it is only in the last few years that there has been growing recognition of the invisibility and misrepresentation of disabled people within museum and gallery displays. (

This leads to a number of themes and questions for the planned book:

  • In what ways have disabled people and disability-related topics historically been represented in the collections and displays of museums and galleries?
  • How can newly emerging representational forms and practices be viewed in relation to these historical approaches?
  • How do emerging trends in museum practice – designed to counter prejudiced, stereotypical representations of disabled people – relate to broader developments in disability rights, debates in disability studies, as well as shifting interpretive practices in public history and mass media?
  • What approaches can be deployed to mine and interrogate existing collections to investigate histories of disability and disabled people to identify material evidence that might be marshalled to play a part in countering prejudice?
  • What are the implications of these developments for contemporary collecting?
  • How might such purposive displays be created and what dilemmas and challenges are curators, educators, designers and other actors in the exhibition-making process, likely to encounter along the way?
  • How do audiences – disabled and non-disabled – respond to and engage with interpretive interventions designed to confront, undercut or reshape dominant regimes of representation that underpin and inform contemporary attitudes to disability?
  • In what ways are debates around disability rights shaping broader management philosophies and practices (for example, around workforce diversity) in museums and galleries?

Each of the three editors will contribute a chapter. In addition David Hevey (author of The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography and Disability Imagery, Routledge 1992), is a confirmed contributor. But they are also looking for others. So, if you would like to propose a contribution, send a 300-500 word abstract and a two page CV to Richard Sandell (, Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. The deadline for abstracts is January 15, 2008. The deadline for accepted essays (approx. 5,000-8,000 words) will be November 15, 2008.

(thanks to Simon and his MUSHM-LINK-list for the news)

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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