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Disability and collections at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Posted on 05 December 2016

Sarah Cotton, Keeper of Contemporary Collecting at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, tell us how they used a process of a research and consultation to transform the way they think about diversity.

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) is a major regional museum, art gallery and archives service. We manage a collection of nine museums and galleries across Tyneside, and the archives for Tyne & Wear. Our mission since 1997 has been ‘to help people determine their place in the world and define their identities, so enhancing their self-respect and their respect for others’. We have a long tradition of striving to engage a wide variety of communities across the North East. 

We wanted to reframe our collections with regards to disability, reviewing what we collect, the ways we collect and how we should present our collections. To do this, we set out to rethink our approaches by working with external agents and reviewing examples of practice in other museums. We set out to work with external partners drawn from arts and disability backgrounds, who would support and challenge us through this programme and provide recommendations for improved curatorial practice and future work.

A group of people with disabilities pose at a TWAM presentation
A presentation from Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

The Activity

Groups of people from disability arts organisations ARCADEA and Lawnmowers Independent Theatre Company worked with us to discuss whether the TWAM collection does represent disability and how. They helped us to think about our curatorial processes and how we could improve them; we looked at community engagement, acquisition of objects and stories, documentation of objects and methods of interpretation. These groups were full of creative, enthusiastic, interested people who care about disability representation and what TWAM is doing to improve its practice.

Through visits and discussions with The Royal College of Physicians, St Fagans National History Museum, Riverside Museum, Glasgow, The People’s History Museum, Manchester and The Mental Health Museum, Wakefield, we also learned about new methods of community engagement, imaginative collaborations and creative interpretation of disability from other museum professionals.

A sign reading: 'Representing Disability - Have your say'
Event at the People's History Museum, Manchester

Learning and Insight

We wanted to look at our collections and practice through fresh eyes. What we have found is that our collection does represent disability but only some aspects of it, and through a ‘narrow lens’. There are gaps, for example, mental health representation, and we need to look at diversity within disability.

Interpretation

In terms of curatorial practice, this process of research and consultation shows that TWAM can be more creative in the ways we interpret existing material; for example, by working with disabled partners to look at our collection in different ways and offer new perspectives. We realised that developing our collection is not just about collecting new material, but also using objects and presenting them using new and creative techniques. Disabled groups’ engagement with our collection has illustrated how different objects mean different things to different people, and the stories and meanings of objects can change from person to person. It’s our job to capture and present those multiple perspectives.

An early accessible taxi on display
An accessible taxi on display at Riverside Museum, Glasgow

Collaboration

Several museums we consulted have collections associated with disability with no information about their history or previous ownership. We have been inspired by new methods which have been used in other museums to interpret disability objects,; by capturing contemporary stories from disabled people and their responses to existing collections, for example. Working with communities, academics, organisations and artists to research and interpret this material has enabled meaningful connections between the objects and audiences.

Impact

As a result of the Reframing Disability consultation, TWAM’s collections policy will be revised. The current Acquisitions and Disposal Policy states simply that disability should be represented in the TWAM collection. The revised policy will be much more explicit about how we wish to do so. We plan to make these changes in consultation with the disability groups we consulted. They have agreed to continue their advisory role to help us to find new, creative ways to represent disability.

This work acts as a philosophy for revising the collections policy to ensure it reflects other protected characteristics – ensuring excellence in the diversity of materials we hold, and creative diversity in the way they are meaningfully interpreted.

Levels of resourcing … remain challenging, but we are finding the principles of the Creative Case support us to maintain focus.