How can museums display assistive technologies without repeating or reinforcing simplistic or incorrect assumptions about their usage? Curator of Scientific & Medical History Collections Nicky Reeves reflects on exhibiting an early 20th century ear trumpet in the Object in Focus display at the Hunterian Museum.
Many people working in museums with science, technology and medical collections are interested in engaging with and representing the history of disability and the lived experiences of disability, impairment and illness.
As with many marginalised or underrepresented individuals, groups, cultures or histories, making disability history and disabled people visible in the museum is often discussed. Museums sometimes use the devices, instruments, and assistive technologies in their collections to tell stories of empowerment, the overcoming of disadvantage, and assimilation.
These stories do not necessarily map to the experiences of disabled people. Sometimes prosthetics or supports are a hindrance rather than a help to disabled people, sometimes they are simply irrelevant. Technologies on display can sometimes be overly tech-positivist, perhaps implying that medical or social problems always have technological solutions, or indeed making a visually seductive argument about progress. Centring people, their lived experiences, expertise and testimony, is necessary.
The history of disability is often the history of access, which is sometimes the history of direct action, protest and spontaneous and unauthorised access, and of unauthorised appropriation.
It is often the history of modifying, repurposing and reimagining tools, wheels, doors, kerbs, ways of living: disability history can be a history of technology transfer, and it can be a history of craft, making and hacking. Hence objects themselves might provide testimony or evidence which counters simplistic or incorrect assumptions.
Wheelchairs, hearing aids, eyeglasses, canes, elevators and ramps can all be considered assistive technologies. Voice recognition software and screen readers could also be considered: an assistive technology can be digital, software, or a set of protocols.
A piece of legislation like the Equality Act 2010 might be considered an assistive technology: an instrument that assists. Is a cochlear implant an assistive technology or is it a prosthetic? Is it something that assists hearing or is it something that creates new forms of hearing? What does the expertise and knowledge of the cochlear implant community add to the concept or meaning of “hearing”?
One thing often remarked on in the display of prosthetics in museums is the emphasis on sports and elite athletes: what narratives are operating here? Why is it so often that very atypical humans, principally elite athletes and Paralympians, are used to represent disabled people and disability culture?
Of the many ear trumpets in museum collections, did most of them belong to middle-class and upper class people? What happens when it is only certain people whose culture and belongings gets collected or displayed? If there are a large number of an item like ear trumpets in museum collections, does that mean that there were lots of ear trumpet users in the past?
Or, does it mean that many people were given them but seldom used them, because they were ineffective, and hence they all survive to the present, unused?
As part of a history of concealment or of passing, the history of hearing aids can sometimes be a history of stigma and shame. Sometimes, ear trumpets were of use, but as items of prestige or display, social signifiers, fashion items, or perhaps devices which did not primarily help hard-of-hearing or deaf people hear but rather made visible the fact that they were deaf.
As historians such as Jaipreet Virdi have described, hearing aids can sometimes be part of the history of standing-out, being different, and of making being hard-of-hearing, hearing loss, deafness and d/Deaf culture visible rather than invisible, concealed or assimilated.
Highly visible and proudly wielded, historic ear trumpets could form an integral part of a person’s image and identity. As with any accessory or item of clothing, they can also tell much about the history of fashion, hairstyles, and gender.
An object on display can both illustrate a particular story whilst simultaneously undermining it or querying it. Hearing aids can help tell the history of technological change, for instance the history of miniaturisation, or the history of communication. They could simultaneously be used tell the history of the rhetorical claims of miniaturisation, or that of miscommunication.
Prosthetic limbs can help tell the history of the connection between conflict-acquired limb loss and medical innovation. Wheelchairs in collections can relate to the history of transport, and the size of their wheels, for instance, often tells us something about the expectations of disabled people’s mobility and role in society. Wheelchairs and other devices can tell something about how society makes people disabled.
By looking at disability, technology and bodies, we learn a lot about technology and bodies in general, and we can learn about body norms, its history and variations therein. However, there’s lots to be cautious about. For instance we need to carefully consider the foregrounding of people’s bodies in accounts or displays of them.
We need to be cautious about reducing people to their bodies: we want to do the opposite of putting disabled people on display as curiosities, a thing which has been done repeatedly in the past. What does an empty — and for that matter, stationary — wheelchair on display in a museum do? What and who is represented? What does it not do?
Do technologies always become more accessible? Visibility and accessibility are often talked about together, although they can mean quite different things. Making museums, objects and interpretation accessible might strongly overlap with giving an account of the history and politics of access itself: putting access on display.
Museums need to be thoughtful about how they present claims made by governments, manufacturers, or users. Certain items began as assistive technologies and then became mainstream technologies. Sometimes the very purpose to which an assistive technology was developed is forgotten when it becomes mainstream, and it becomes inaccessible to the very people who either advocated for it or indeed helped create it. Is this inevitable? How should we display this history?
Activism in the museum
Change is sometimes difficult, non-inevitable, and antagonistic. Presenting it retrospectively as inevitable conceals the mechanisms by which it happens and often minimises the struggle of those who enacted it. This is typical of the memorialisation of activism in museums: once the struggle is achieved, it is represented as inevitable and obvious.
In their incredible history of the Universal Design movement and the politics of disability, Aimi Hamraie considers an item in a museum in Washington DC. Smithsonian 2004.0171.01 is a rough lump of concrete that has been removed from a sidewalk in Denver, Colorado by disability activists in the 1970s campaigning for physical accessibility of public spaces through direct intervention: taking a sledgehammer to the urban environment in order to make a smooth ramp to allow wheelchair users to cross the road. The curb cut fits the definition of an assistive technology, the removed lump of concrete becomes a memorial stone.
Sometimes the literal smoothing over presents new barriers: for other road users such as partially sighted people, the stepped curb is a useful barrier, and its replacement with smoothness creates a problem.
This problem can be overcome with another form of friction, the dimpled surface texture at crossing points. Hamraie notes how curb cuts have become a metaphor for smoothing away difference: a case study in disability activism and assimilation, but also a liberal metaphor of smoothness, including the common metaphor of the “electronic curb cut” which will remove all barriers and create an apparently equitable plane.
This can be a model in which an idealised form of citizenship or shared identity is at play, a rehabilitative or normative model which doesn’t allow for nonconformity, in which access makes a homogenous and productive citizenry.
Disability history told through objects like this might tell us a lot about certain forms of urban accessibility. What is striking about much of this kind of disability history as portrayed in museums, is that it is a history that often takes whiteness as unproblematic or unremarkable: in a segregated American city, or in a city where Black people feel harassed or unwelcome downtown, or in certain neighbourhoods, the slope or the ramp might be completely irrelevant to accessing the civic space.
Where is the possibility for representing the person who is both disabled and Black in the mid-20th century American environment in this representation? What happens when only certain people are able to protest, and only certain types of protest get memorialised?
There is still an inherent whiteness to this grey museum object, and this is something to consider critically with respect to all attempts to represent disability in museums.
The Hunterian’s Ear Trumpet Object in Focus is still on display in the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow.
Nothing About Us Without Us. Disabled people’s activism: past, present and future is on display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, until Monday, 16 October 2023, in a range of accessible formats both in-person and online.
Being Human, the new permanent gallery at the Wellcome Collection, London, notes that the texts in the gallery have been written with reference to the social model of disability. A variety of captions and audio descriptions are available to read online, and in the gallery itself there are labels in Braille, raised surface tactile images, BSL and audio descriptions: look out for these accessibility features in all museums!