Photo credit: Richard Sandell, RCMG/Wellcome Images
University of Leicester
Stories of a Different Kind was developed to engage the public in a reassessment of widely held assumptions surrounding disability and to challenge deeply entrenched negative and discriminatory contemporary attitudes towards disabled people. It is a collaborative project led by Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, funded by the Wellcome Trust. It achieved this by bringing together experts in disability, medical history, museums and public engagement to shape and publicly present a new narrative of disability in the form of Cabinet of Curiosities: how Disability was kept in a box - a provocative live performance by internationally renowned artist Mat Fraser. The highly engaging, witty, unsettling and profoundly moving performance blended research, personal testimony, object stories, comedy, film, music hall pastiche and even rapping to explore the relationship between medical thinking and practice (that has tended to view physical and mental differences as necessarily problematic and in need of fix or cure); disability rights, culture and identity; and broader negative societal attitudes towards disabled people. Live post show discussions, online and social media and evaluation with attenders were used to listen to responses and open up dialogue that will, in turn, be used to inform future research and engagement practice.
The project wanted to use research to stimulate - and crucially to inform - the kinds of conversations which people have about disability. More than 20 years of research and practice in this field had revealed the largely untapped potential museums hold to engage visitors in a reassessment of widely held attitudes and largely unquestioned assumptions about people with physical and mental differences. Stories of a Different Kind would use a potent blend of highly trusted museum and medical expertise; museum objects and their associated stories; and highly personalized, emotionally rich and politically engaged perspectives on the lived experience of disability to shape a unique artwork with the capacity to engage and provoke, to open minds and to stimulate dialogue on a pressing but largely overlooked social issue. For this small scale, highly experimental project the target audience were adults interested in museums, medical history and disability, including disabled people but especially a non-disabled audience that might not have been exposed to research and thinking in this area.
Efforts were made from the outset of the project to embed the work into the practice of the partner organisations. As a result, individual partners used the project to engage and involve colleagues, governing bodies and other stakeholders. For example, senior management at each museum welcomed participants to each of the sell-out performances and explained the relevance and significance of the research to their ongoing work. The Science Museum reported on the impact of the project in its newsletter for staff, trustees and supporters. All project partners have been involved in supporting the evaluation (providing access to participants, and agreeing evaluation methods) and all received the final results.
The project received the Observer Ethical Award for Arts and Culture in 2014, in recognition of its capacity to engage and inspire the public to think differently. An independent evaluation found that 'Almost half of e-survey respondents strongly agreed (14%) or agreed (35%) that attending the event changed their perceptions of disability' and 'The majority of respondents demonstrated changed attitudes' (The Audience Agency 2014).