Iris Sirendi, our Fellow at the Museum of Liverpool, discusses her experience of reinterpreting the history of boxer Alan Rudkin MBE, and discovering some unexpected stories about his childhood.
Reframing the language around disability
For the past few months, I have been working on the reinterpretation of the story of Alan Rudkin MBE, who was a bantamweight British boxing champion from Liverpool. The object label accompanying his items on display in the Mersey Fighters section of Wondrous Place gallery, which have been on loan since 2011, told us that he had polio in childhood, and that he ‘overcame’ his disability to take up boxing. I wanted to challenge the idea that disability is something to ‘overcome’, believing instead that it is not our conditions that disable us, but the environment around us. Disability isn’t something to ‘overcome’ or ‘defeat’ or do things ‘in spite of’- it is something that informs our lived experience.
The world around us might present us with barriers, but it does not mean something is wrong with us, rather that our environment isn’t adapted to give us equity with others. You do not have to ‘overcome’ your disability to achieve great things, and this narrative is damaging. We decided to update the label, to reflect the changes in language and attitudes towards disability over time, and to provide another label that acknowledged the previous text and how Curating for Change had influenced the change.
Exploring the life of Alan Rudkin MBE
I got to work researching Alan’s lived experience of polio. I found endless articles that referred to his time in hospital relearning to walk as a child etc. all from sources I had often referred to when doing research, like archives, newspapers and obituaries. Satisfied that I’d learned all that I could about Alan’s experiences of polio, I contacted the Polio Fellowship to see if anyone would be happy to look over the new label I had created and confirm that I had rewritten the text sensitively and accurately. A volunteer named Andrew got in touch a few days later – and that’s where the story changed. The volunteer suggested that, from the information I’d given him, it didn’t seem likely that Alan had ever had polio. It had to be something else.
Almost every source I’d looked at so far had named his condition as polio. How could all of them be wrong? I asked myself. But how likely was it that any of those sources had a lived experience of polio? It was vital to centre the voices of those who had, like the volunteer I spoke to, that knew the condition intimately and was deeply knowledgeable about its symptoms.
I decided then that the best way to determine the real details of Alan’s story was to get in touch with his children, who had loaned many of the objects relating to his life. His daughter responded quickly and was unbelievably kind and gracious. She told me more about his life, his incredible charity work, and about his experiences of childhood illness: namely, Perthes’ disease. When I had first started researching Alan Rudkin, the curator of the gallery where his items are displayed had offered me resources about his life. Only one of them, which I’d then regarded as a misnomer, had mentioned Alan having had anything other than polio in his youth – an article that briefly referred to him having had Perthes’ disease.
Retelling Alan’s story
What do you do when so much of the historical record about someone is incorrect? His daughter, Rebecca, was sure he’d tried many times to correct this misconception across his lifetime. Perhaps it had manifested because Perthes’ disease was a lesser-known childhood illness, whereas polio had been prevalent in the 1950s, when Alan was a child. Working together with Rebecca, I was able to retell Alan’s story, and rework the label that referred to his disability as something to be ‘overcome’. It was clear from his daughter’s account that her father had been an incredibly caring father, a talented sportsperson, and a Liverpool hero who had given back to his community and worked so hard to inspire children with similar conditions to his own.
It was an absolute honour and unbelievably rewarding experience to be able to share Alan Rudkin’s story with the people of Liverpool again, the way his loved ones wished to see it written. It will remain one of my greatest memories of being a Curating for Change Fellow. I’m so grateful for this experience, which has taught me so much about both Alan’s incredible life, and the value of representing someone for who they truly are, no matter how complicated the journey to that truth may be.
You can read more about Alan’s story here
With thanks to Rebecca Rudkin, the Rudkin family and the Merseyside Former Boxers Association for loaning these objects relating to his career.