Disabled People Empowerment in Museums


A review of How Can Disabled People Be Empowered to Influence Decision-making in Museums? by Heather Jayne Hollins.

Focusing on a group of young disabled people, the Pioneers, who consulted and worked with the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, UK, Heather Hollins’s dissertation, at its core, interrogates how disabled people have been historically and contemporarily excluded from cultural spaces. She explores the power relations implicit in cultural exclusion not only from the perspective of inaccessibility for audience members but also from the perspective of the lack of meaningful representations of disability within museums’ collections. Although this dissertation carries out a longitudinal ethnography of one specific cultural institution, the Holocaust Centre, Hollins’s findings have broad implications for museum accessibility policies, curatorial practices, and discussions of cultural inclusions and exclusions. In this way, Hollins’s work makes a significant contribution to both disability studies and museum studies for its assertion that disabled people require access to cultural spaces and conversation in order to be fully included in all aspects of social and civic life.

Throughout this work, Hollins focuses on the social and socio-structural nature of exclusion by demonstrating how oppression is the result of an interaction between power and powerlessness, asking the important question, “How does power play out in processes of exclusion?” (pp. 15-16). As introduced in Chapter 1, which explores the social nature of exclusion, one method for disrupting power relations, which works to exclude disabled people from cultural spaces, is to facilitate opportunities for disabled people to empower and advocate for themselves. This was the kind of empowerment that Hollins was attempting to facilitate when she arranged for the Pioneers to work with the Holocaust Centre as accessibility and inclusion consultants, leading to her overall research question, as I read it: Were the Pioneers empowered through the research? Hollins’s dissertation clearly and strongly demonstrates that they were, indeed.

Chapter 2 offers a comprehensive overview of disability studies, articulating that rather than being a problem in need of a solution, disability studies understands disability as a social phenomenon arising from the ableism (structural and attitudinal barriers) directed at people with impairments. Hollins demonstrates how the social exclusion of disabled people from cultural centres, such as the Holocaust Centre, is an example of such disablism (discrimination directed towards disabled people). Carrying on from Chapter 2’s discussion of disability oppression, Chapter 3 explores how museums have attempted to address social exclusion by enacting anti-oppressive practices which may (productively) challenge traditional museum practices. In this chapter Hollins asserts that, following Bennett (p. 75), the exhibitory power of the ruling class has always worked to communicate a particular worldview, which includes and excludes certain groups of people; to be represented in cultural exhibits is to acknowledge the history and humanity of groups of people. As Hollins writes, “The legacy of these issues of power and inequality lay at the heart of modern museums, and today, museums are not unaware of the power they hold to include and exclude individuals and groups within society. A radical shift was needed to move museums from an elitist and exclusionary position to a place where they could demonstrate more egalitarian principles” (p. 76). Given such a history, Hollins makes the astute claim that in order for the Pioneers to be recognized as decision-makers at the Holocaust Centre, they must first build up social capital, confronting and challenging legacies of disablism and exclusion from cultural spaces as well as the curating of historical narratives.

Chapter 5 explores Hollins’s fieldwork, unpacking the consultations the Pioneers had with the Holocaust Centre as well as the Pioneers’ reflections on the process through which they became informed decision-makers. One of the most interesting moments of Hollins’s dissertation occurs in this chapter, when the question of museum inclusivity shifts from having access to the museum to being recognized in the museum’s artefacts and exhibits (pp. 190-194). Rightly stated, disabled people have been violently implicated in the history of eugenics, a history that overlaps with the Holocaust as Jewish and non-Jewish disabled people were among the most violently affected by the Holocaust and the Nazi regime. Yet disabled people were not represented in the Holocaust Centre narrative of the Holocaust, and were thereby erased from this history. It is inaccurate, but not uncommon. Disability history, including how it intersects with the Holocaust, often remains hidden. Chapter 5 chronicles how the Pioneers recognized this oversight as unjust, convinced the museum curators of the same, and created a sculpture honouring disabled victims of the Holocaust. This is nothing short of liberating. Moreover, as a result of this consultation, the Holocaust Centre is likely the only of its kind to have any representation of disabled people and disability history in its collection. Not only does the inclusion of the sculpture created by the Pioneers rectify a historical inaccuracy, it also puts this Centre on the map for its attention to disability history. This is a powerful result of consulting with disabled people.

In chapters 6 and 7, Hollins investigates the impacts and outcomes of her research. Here she returns to her introductory question, “Can the Pioneers be empowered through research?” (p. 279). She makes the claim that research can be a political act, as it aims “to support an oppressed group to challenge power inequalities in the research process and the museum context” (p. 218). Through the consulting process embedded in Hollins’s research, the Pioneers were able to build up enough social capital to have influence over the Holocaust Centre in a number of ways (p. 224): they effectively advised on accessibility, effectively advised on curatorial practices recommending the inclusion of disabled people in the Holocaust Centre’s exhibitions linking disability justice to Jewish justice, and built a sculpture to this effect. In this way, not only did this consultation lead to the recognition of the Pioneers’ agency and thusly to their empowerment, it also resulted in significant cultural change.

At the beginning of this work, Hollins asks if a longitudinal ethnography on a single cultural institution can offer insight into how to create more accessible and welcoming cultural spaces for disabled people (p. 6); I think it can. More than this, I think Hollins’s findings have implications which could make cultural spaces more accessible and welcoming for all, not just disabled people (although, as this work also indicates, accommodations must be made even if they only accommodate disabled audience members). Indeed, sections of Hollins’s dissertation could be turned into a highly effective set of policy guidelines for inclusive practices for museums and other cultural centres. Not only would such policy guidelines lay out a set of best practices which would improve access, they would also help to change professional museum practices in exciting new and inclusive directions. As Hollins points out throughout this work, many of the suggestions she is offering—to have larger print on plaques, for example (p. 206)—may challenge traditional curatorial and museum practices, and are sure to court resistance. However, policies on museum inclusion written from a disability studies-informed social justice perspective with knowledge of how museums are traditionally run, like the ones Hollins could create, could change such traditions.

Although this work provides extensive examples of how museums can make policy and structural changes to become more accessible and inclusive, I think the richness of the work is in the way that Hollins reveals that fully inclusive museums require attitudinal changes. As she points out, consultations like the one the Holocaust Centre had with the Pioneers is likely too extensive for most museums to perform (p. 283). However, given the multiplicity of disability and access needs, it may be that “one size fits one.” Thinking in a careful and considered way about the diversity of embodiments that may show up to a museum can go a long way. Ultimately, as Hollins’s work demonstrates, full museum inclusivity may not come from only adhering to accessibility guidelines, but rather through a mix of creating and complying with guidelines as well as recognizing and desiring disabled people as a necessary part of our culture and being open to changes in cultural practices to become more inclusive to all.

Eliza Chandler
Ryerson University

Primary Sources

Longitudinal ethnographic action research at the Holocaust Centre, Nottingham, UK.
Dissertation Information

University of Leicester, School of Museum Studies. 2013. 322 pp. Primary Advisors: Richard Sandell and Viv Golding.

Image: Visitor response forms for One in Four exhibition, Tyne and Wear Museums, photograph by Peter Carney, courtesy of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), University of Leicester.

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