It's also about your shops.
Today, I want to make you think about museums, about access and inclusion, and about whether the two can ever work together. Can a museum actually be inclusive?
I have been a museum person all my life. I grew up going to museums in Paris, and then I interned in museums, my first summer job was in a museum and I studied museum studies all the way to a PhD. So, you get it, all of my professional experience has been as a museum person. But most of my lived experience has also been as a disabled and then chronically-ill person. This is who I am – someone with an invisible disability and an invisible illness.
So, one day, while I was a researcher at a big museum, and I was working in their medical collection, I visited the museum shop, just out of curiosity to look at the new collection. I have been before to this shop, it has great books, lots of stuff to buy, it’s got cool topics, it’s an attractive museum shop. And there, is the new collection for the medicine galleries.
And the first object I see is a postcard.
The postcard reads ‘normal people don’t need drugs’.
The postcard is a copy of a poster from the 1960s which is meant to advice people against taking hard drugs and their danger. But that’s not on the poster or on the postcard. To know that, you need to see the poster contextualized in the galleries, which then, were not open yet. So, in this big national museum shop, in 2019, you have a postcard that says normal people don’t need drugs. Any drugs.
This postcard stopped me in my tracks. That day, I looked at this card and I thought: did I just get hired as a disabled and sick person, to work in a medicine collection, that is now selling a postcard that’s 100% going to be bought as a joke, a “you’re not normal” joke.
But then, this is a museum. It is a place that was created – the museum, not just this museum – to showcase otherness, to divide people into normal and abnormal, into white and non-white, into acceptable and non-acceptable. The museum is a construct. It is a political tool to control others. And so, unsurprisingly, the medical museum is one tool in this construct. The medical museum is historically a place where we display human remains, and representations of humans, to show what is normal, what is healthy, what is acceptable, and then on the other side, what is deviant, what is abnormal, what is unhealthy. And how we can fix it. It is a place historically that situates you. Situatedness is the essence of these categorizations.
And on that day, I was abnormal, because I need medicinal drugs to stay alive. Some people with similar conditions need hard drugs to stay alive. Some drugs that are pointed in this poster are legalized for medicinal use now.
We’re the abnormal people on drugs that this shop was making fun of. In a museum.
I decided to have a closer look at the new galleries about to open (I was not involved in the curation of it) and to think: what in there represents me? Where in the medical museum do I fit in? My disability isn’t visible, neither is my illness. There is no heroic recovery coming for me, I am not curable. Which objects represent me and other people like me? Where do I fit? What is not in the museum? That’s what I’m interested in professionally, the absence, the lies, and the omissions. This is something you can think about in any museums, not just the medical one. What’s missing?
This is what prompted me to create The Lyme Museum, which is an online museum registered with the Association of Independent Museums in the UK, and it’s a museum about people with invisible illnesses and disabilities. It’s a provocation to the museum, especially to the museum in a time of pandemic, when its physical materiality can be challenged. It’s also an invitation to all those people – like myself, maybe like you too– who are not represented in museums when it comes to health. But it’s also an invitation to everyone else. An invitation to contest, to question, to challenge narratives and representation. It’s about making the invisible visible. It’s about saying, we can fill the gaps, and before you know it, the gaps are the whole. We can challenge the museum that oppressed us, and we can challenge what a museum will look like, what it will do in the 21st century.
It’s a contestation to what inclusion looks like. A reminder that inclusion isn’t just a buzz word for job titles and fancy online posts. It’s also about your shops, your absences, your omissions, the fact that hiring the people your ignore in displays is not a solution – often it is an affront. Access is in representation and multi-vocality. So this is what The Lyme Museum, which is still in its infancy strives to do, give people a voice, give mundane every-day, crucial, meaningful objects a central space, and it is a museum run by the people it represents. We’re just getting started….