The 21st century has brought about many new and exciting changes in the realm of science, technology, health, and everyday life entertainment. Access to education, medical treatment, but also enjoyment has increased throughout the world, although there are still many inequalities in the access to leisure activities. For those who can take time off, a visit to a museum, or to an art gallery, can become a favorite pastime. Visiting museums can have a positive impact, not only to deepen one’s cultural knowledge, but studies have also found that museum visits can improve mental health, and some countries have even started to prescribe museum visits as part of medical treatments. It is therefore not rare for individuals to visit a museum simply to wander the rooms, and to experience a form of meditation, admiring the paintings or sculptures on display. Museums give visitors the opportunity to learn not just about the works of art, but also to see behind those work, to comprehend the meaning of a sculpture or a painting, and perhaps even try to understand the motivations and meanings behind an artist’s creation.
A wander through the galleries of a museum might sound like a simple thing to do, but at times it can be a complex experience for some visitors – the stories that are told can be traumatic, or they can be exclusionary. The experience of museums can be especially complex for disabled visitors. Even though, a large number of cultural institutes have worked on making their institutions more physically accessible, there is a long way to go, not just in terms of physical accessibility, but also when it comes to representation. It is supposed that a great variety of artists should have the chance to expose their art works in a museum without being discriminated against who they are. Has it ever occurred to you to look at a painting, without acknowledging the life of the artist? How often do you think you may have visited expositions which featured artists with visible or invisible illnesses or disabilities?
How common is it that these people are represented in the cultural environment of the museum?
Art on display in museums could be used as a tool not only to educate visitors about such topics as artistic techniques, but also to make them think about the artist’s life, and their experience. It is significant that many artists whose works are presented in a gallery or a museum have lived with illnesses and disabilities, and yet the public may not be aware of that aspect of their life. Of course, artists do not have to disclose these personal details, but many have talked about it publicly, and yet museums have excluded these narratives from museums – thus erasing one’s important lived experience in favour of artistry. This erasure of one’s identity means that even if visitors admire an artist’s work and are familiar enough with their education, childhood, or social background they lack one of the most important parts of who they were.
Museums should be a way for everyone to feel included, in a society which still struggles with many kinds of discriminations, from origin to disability.
One of the reasons for a lack of representation could be societal taboo, and a misleading idea that illness and disability have to be hidden from public knowledge. Have you ever thought how many artists of the 20thcentury might have had depression, or any other mental illnesses? What about physical disabilities? Museums still present collections of paintings or sculptures without giving all the information on the identity of the artist to the public, even if the artist has publicly disclosed those. Why would that be necessary? Visiting a museum is not only to educate or amuse ourselves, but also sometimes to find our identity, to connect with others and to get to know ourselves better in the end of the day, or the visit!
Representing artists with disabilities or illnesses is representing the whole of the people living in today’s society.
Even in the 21st century, a century characterized by drastic changes in many domains, such as politics, education, or human rights, artists with disabilities still try to become visible in a society that unfortunately does not always offer that possibility. Various associations do their best so that all voices are heard and eventually museums are becoming more inclusive and representative. It is not only important to give access to disabled visitors, but also to present the work of disabled artists. This is called social equality and there is still a long way before it is achieved. By giving to the public a chance to engage with the identity of the artist, museums could play a vital role in the social evolution in terms of human rights.
The importance of a masterpiece is not only measured by its artistic value, but also by its cultural impact. Does it offer the chance to a visitor for overall thinking and personal representation, or it is just another beautiful painting or sculpture to admire?
Visiting a museum of contemporary art for example could be an intriguing way for the public not only to discover new masterpieces and artists, but also to identify themselves through the art, through the identity of the artist. Everyone is unique in their own way and art is the representation of that uniqueness and authenticity. As soon as more museums start having on display the work of people having disabilities, more visitors can become familiar with that aspect of life and with how art is an inner necessity and can serve as a tool for everyone to express themselves. Shouldn’t cultural institutions start presenting artworks in a way that it is the identity of the artist represented, not just the masterpiece? How could anyone truly admire someone’s work if they do not get to know the creator? Considering the impact that an exhibition might have on the visitors, it might be time to think of the kind of visitors a museum would like to have. Passive admirers or thinkers and activists? People who feel represented or people who feel excluded from culture and therefore everyday life? What is actually the aim of a cultural institution? To just provide us with historical information or to be present in a society in which being visible is not always guaranteed?
Evangelia Valliou is a museum researcher and the 2021/2022 The Lyme Museum volunteer.