Iris Sirendi, Curating for Change Fellow at the Museum of Liverpool, looks back on her experiences so far and discusses some of the fascinating stories she has discovered about disability heritage in Liverpool.
Exploring the galleries and uncovering new stories in the collections
I started my Curating for Change fellowship in September, and throughout the last seven months at the Museum of Liverpool, I feel like I’ve progressed the programme’s mission to highlight and celebrate disability history and heritage within our museum in so many ways.
So far, I’ve enjoyed researching our existing disability history content, which led to uncovering so many hidden stories within our collections. Throughout my time investigating the Museum of Liverpool’s collections and galleries for objects relating to disability history and heritage, I’ve come across rich, fascinating stories that span decades of Liverpool’s lives. In our galleries, we have tales of sporting heroes, veterans, and long-running institutions like the Royal School for the Blind.
I’ve also worked with collections in our stores to uncover stories that haven’t been explored on display. Looking through our collections, I’ve discovered an impressive record of disability heritage in Liverpool. From tram passes used by disabled and convalescent soldiers in the First World War, to a series of wheelchairs that speak to the ever-changing advancements in assistive technology, there was so much incredible disability heritage to be explored. A personal favourite was the multitude of leaflets that showcased the powerful and outspoken activism of disabled people in Liverpool throughout the 20th century.
Discovering the history of Edward Rushton
When I first started at the Museum of Liverpool, I became involved in creating a display for Disability History Month, featuring a bust of Edward Rushton, one of the founders of the Royal School for the Blind. Researching Rushton’s story was just the start of a lengthy list of incredible stories of disability history in Liverpool that I’ve come to learn so much about, and really look forward to sharing.
I had my first try at telling these stories to the public through a Disability History Month social media takeover on the Museum of Liverpool Instagram, where I shared a few key pieces from the disability history collections in our galleries. It was fantastic to see our followers respond to voice exactly what they thought made a museum most accessible.
Creating a Disability History Community Trail
The outcome of my curatorial fellowship will be to develop a brand-new Disability History Community Trail to go alongside the group of diverse stories that the museum’s existing trails tell. By this Disability History Month (16 November – 16 December), you will be able to follow the amazing stories of disability history and heritage across the Museum of Liverpool, created in co-production with local disabled communities.
I hope to have the lived experiences of disabled people at the heart of everything we do, prioritising their ideas, needs and perspectives. As part of this, we are also working on ensuring that a range of disability heritage objects and stories are available on our online Collections, where I’ve been writing away on a handful of key objects so far and look forward to including our co-producers in the process.
Creating our new trail has also given us an opportunity to snap some fantastic new photographs of some of the disability history content in our stores and galleries. Working with photographer Pete Carr, we now have brilliant new images of the objects that will form our trail and online collections, as well as pictures of different tactile interventions across the museum. These tactile objects will go hand in hand with making our trail and our website more accessible. Visitors will be able to easily find all the tactile content in our galleries as well as the trail objects. As a person with sensory processing issues, it was paramount to me that we make our tactile interventions as easy as possible to find.
It’s so important to recognise that being able to engage with sensory materials can significantly improve a neurodivergent or visually impaired visitor’s experience. This is something I found out first hand when taking part in the Learning and Participation team’s amazing Sensory Tours – which we have also photographed with Pete and will aim to promote as part of our trail.
Encountering challenges along the way
I’ve encountered some challenges along the way, such as a significant lack of representation in some galleries compared to others. During my research, I came across two galleries without any representation of disability, and two with only one object relating to disability. With disabled people constituting around 17.8% of the population of England and Wales as of 2021, and Liverpool having one of the highest proportions of people living with a disability in the region, it is vital that the lived experiences of disabled people are reflected in the work of our museums. I’m also hopeful that I will be able to collect further representation of neurodiversity, having similarly only come across a handful of objects relating to the lives of neurodivergent people in Liverpool.
When further investigating the objects in our collections, I’ve spent a significant amount of time working in our stores, getting up close and personal with a range of different objects. Our collections run the course of a long history here in Liverpool, which comes with a lot of instances of insensitive language and ableist terminology. It is important to acknowledge this, and to recognise the changing attitudes towards disability in the historical record, remembering we are still in the earlier stages of acceptance and advocacy for disabled people. With this in mind, we are making changes to an existing display in Wondrous Place to reflect upon its use of outdated language towards disability, with its current suggestion that disability is something to be “overcome”, and ensuring that we address why these changes were made as part of the display.
A new donation by Rosie Cooper, former MP
My next steps as Curating for Change fellow will be installing new objects donated by Rosie Cooper, former MP, in time for Deaf Awareness Month, 2-8 May. Rosie has kindly donated a medal that she received from the British Deaf Association in thanks for advocating tirelessly for the British Sign Language Bill (now the British Sign Language Act of 2022), which recognises BSL as an official language in England, Scotland and Wales. I look forward to seeing this incredible piece of Liverpool’s disability history on display and for it to become part of our new trail.