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Invisible disabilities, lived experiences, and the mundane object

Written by: Robyn Timmins


Mundane: In weakened sense: ordinary, commonplace. Hence: prosaic, dull, humdrum; lacking interest or excitement (OED, 2024). 1


The Disability Discrimination Act 2005, and subsequently the Equality Act 2010, require service providers, including museums, to make reasonable adjustments – including additional support, ramp provision, and large-text and braille guides – to enable disabled people to use their services. 2 Museum professionals have argued that many museums, in response to this legislation, started making adjustments to enable disabled access, but they did not necessarily move past these requirements. 3 While museums have a legal obligation to provide accessible services, they also have a moral obligation to include the representation of disabled people, as a traditionally excluded group . 4


Over the past two decades, projects such as Buried in the Footnotes and Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries have set out to explore the representation of disability, both historical and contemporary, within museums across the UK. 5 6 These projects highlighted the value in including disabled people from the onset in the development phase of services. No one can provide services effectively, and accurately understand the needs and wants of disabled people, better than those with lived experience. 7


While museums can differ vastly in terms of their purpose, audience, and collection, the single thing that all museums have in common is their possession of collections. 8 When museums collect an object, they remove them from their natural context, recontextualising and interpreting them through exhibitions. 9 10 When objects become exhibits, they take on new meanings , and their value changes. 11


So, what objects would I put in a museum display to represent my lived experiences as a disabled person – specifically one living with hidden disabilities and chronic illness?

A photograph of objects arranged in a flat lay showing: a tile-patterned heat pad, tapestry purse containing medication and tea bags, Agatha Christie book, notebook and pens, circular knitting needles with a half-knitted green jumper, two inhalers, hand sanitiser, earphones and case, eyeglasses, toner water in a spray bottle, and a filled water bottle decorated with bees.
A flat lay of everyday objects which I feel make my invisible disabilities and chronic illnesses visible.

This is my flat lay of the objects I would pick. Without additional context, many of the objects in my flat lay would not be considered by most museum visitors as belonging in a museum or having any links to the topic of disability at all. Yes, medication, painkillers, and inhalers are common medical objects. But what about the knitting needles, the heat bag, the notepad and the pens, the water bottle, the tea, the book, or even the noise cancelling earphones? These objects can appear mundane: ordinary, commonplace, ‘with the implication that they are dull, or lacking in interest of excitement’, according to the OED definition. But I use these objects every single day. This selection that I made is from what I had at hand in that very moment. It offers an assortment of items which help lessen my pain, sensory issues, and other symptoms I struggle with, but also objects that make me happy, or occupy my mind for a while.


They act as physical, material, and tangible evidence of my daily experiences as someone who is disabled, and whose disabilities may not otherwise be visible.


In the context of The Lyme Museum, and its mission to transform the invisible into the visible, these personal objects are given a new context and further significance in telling the story of a hidden disability.


Disabled people have vastly varying experiences – my experience of mental illness, neurodivergence, PCOS, and hypermobility syndrome differs from the experiences of my family members with similar conditions. We are individuals. We possess our own personalities, our own understandings of our conditions, disabilities, and different ways of navigating the world. But we also often have negative shared experiences in our interactions with social structures and representations which ‘devalue disabled people’. 12 13 The museum can be one of those structures.


Traditionally, objects representing disability in museums have presented a medicalised view of the disabled – largely focusing on medical and technological development. 14 Objects ‘have an undeniable power to elicit responses from people. [They] serve as symbols of ourselves, our relationships, and our lives’). 15 Visitors to The Lyme Museum encounter everyday objects which may likely be very familiar to them. The collection is not primarily made of obscure historical medical devices, but instead it is made of ordinary objects which may be very familiar to visitors. Many people will have owned or used a hot water bottle at some point in their life – but for many disabled people, these are essential objects paramount to their comfort and wellbeing. Personal stories from the disabled, combined with everyday objects, can offer a significant opportunity for museum visitors to ‘reconstruct altered understandings of disability’, away from negative stereotypes which have previously dominated representations of us. 16


Objects make tangible the human experiences so that others can imagine, learn from, and connect with them. 17 What better object to connect to than one that is ‘ordinary’? Visitors to The Lyme Museum will most likely have come across many of the objects in my flat lay image and may even have used them. The material is familiar. My experiences may not be. But through the material, tangible, object, my personal experiences and invisible disabilities are given a vehicle through which they are seen, considered, and understood.


These objects are not extraordinary. They are mundane, they are ordinary. But I am an ordinary disabled person. I possess experiences of living with invisible chronic illnesses and disabilities. I used many of these ordinary objects before I had a name for my conditions – before I realised that I identified as disabled. As museum objects, and within the context of The Lyme Museum’s collection, the value of these objects is emphasised, and I am given a platform where I can represent myself and tell my own story. The collection of ‘mundane’ objects at The Lyme Museum gives visitors an opportunity to ‘connect with others through objects’ by highlighting the everyday lived experiences of disabled people. 18


You can find out more about the Flat Lay Collection, as began and developed by Dr Angela Stienne at The Lyme Museum, here.


You can also explore The Lyme Museum Instagram page, on which you can find

posts about more ‘ordinary’ museum objects, such as history and significance of the


 

References:


1 Oxford English Dictionary (2024), s.v. “mundane (adj.), sense 1.c,” March


2 Right to Participate (n.d.). Museums, art galleries, amusement parks, concessionary tickets and support workers. Out and about. [online] Available at:


3 O’Neill, M, (2008). ‘Advancing Museum Practice’. In Rethinking Disability Representation in

Museums and Galleries. Available at: https://hdl.handle.net/2381/31689 [Accessed: 20 Dec. 2023]. P.28.


4 Hurst, R. (2008). ‘Shaping Representation: The Role of Disabled People’. In Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries. Ed by Dodd et al. Available at:

https://hdl.handle.net/2381/31689 [Accessed: 20 Dec. 2023]. Pp.16.


5 Dodd, J. et al. (2004). Buried in the footnotes | Research Centre for Museums and Galleries

(RCMG). [online] University of Leicester. Available at: https://le.ac.uk/rcmg/research-archive/buried-in-the-footnotes#:~:text=Buried%20in%20the%20Footnotes%20represented [Accessed 1 Jan. 2024]. P.4


6 Dodd, J. et al. (2008). Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries. Available at: https://hdl.handle.net/2381/31689 [Accessed: 20 Dec. 2023]. P.12.


7 O’Neill, M, (2008). P.28


8 Ambrose, T. and Paine, C. (2006) Museum Basics. Oxon, Routledge. P.6.


9 Lubar, S. (2018) ‘Museums Need Collections and Connections’, Medium, 10 August. Available at: https://lubar.medium.com/museums-need-collections-and-connections-375543f9d331 (Accessed 4th January 2022).


10 MacDonald, G. and Alsford, S. (2010). ‘The Museum as Information Utility’. In R. Parry (ed)

Museums in a Digital Age, London, Routledge, P.72.


11 Annis, S. (1994) ‘The museum as a staging ground for symbolic action’. In G. Kavanagh, Museum Provision and Professionalism. London, Routledge. P.21.


12 Maudlin, L. (2021). ‘Sociological perspectives on disability’. In The Oxford handbook of the sociology of disability. Ed. By Lewis Brown, R., Maroto, M. and D. Pettingicchio. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp38-57.


13 Hunt, Miriam (2023). Representing disability in museums: Absence and discourse. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University. P.41.


14 Anderson, J. and O’Sullivan, L (2010). ‘Histories of Disability and Medicine: Reconciling historical narratives and contemporary values’. In Re-Presenting Disability; Activism and Agency in the Museum. Ed by. R. Sandell, J. Dodd, and R. Garland-Thomson. London: Routledge. Pp.143-154.


15 Silverman, L (2002). ‘The Therapeutic potential of museums as pathways to inclusion’. In

Museums, Society, Inequality, Ed. By R. Sandell. London: Routledge, P.77.


16 Dodd, J., Jones, C., Jolly, D. and R. Sandell (2010). ‘Disability Reframed: Challenging visitor perceptions in the museum’. In Re-Presenting Disability; Activism and Agency in the Museum. Ed. by R. Sandell, J. Dodd, and R. Garland-Thomson. London: Routledge. P.108


17 Ott, K (2010). ‘Collective Bodies: What museums do for disability studies’. In Re-Presenting Disability; Activism and Agency in the Museum. Ed. by R. Sandell, J. Dodd, and R. Garland-Thomson. London: Routledge. P.271.


18 Museums Association (2018) Collections 2030 Discussion Paper. Available at:

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