It is estimated that today there are around one billion disabled people in the world yet it is rare to find stories of deaf and disabled people in the UK’s museums. The History of Place project, delivered by Accentuate http://www.accentuateuk.org/homepage, explores eight sites in the UK, representing eight hundred years of history, to illuminate the lives of deaf and disabled people through time.
We have volunteers across the UK, working as part of our Research and Archive Group, visiting archives, museums and private collections to uncover previously unknown personal stories through records, objects and oral histories. We are working with deaf and disabled artists to creatively respond to the material being uncovered via workshops, film making and digital game making. We are also working with deaf and disabled heritage professionals as part of our ‘Heritage Hub’ so that we are telling stories with, rather than about, deaf and disabled people. Our research and creative responses will form significant exhibitions at the V&A Museum in London, the Museum of Liverpool and M Shed in Bristol in addition to being shared regularly on our website http://historyof.place.
In Liverpool we are working to uncover stories from the archives of the Royal School for the Blind, the first blind school in the UK and the first in the world to accept students of all ages. Founded in 1791 it remains in existence today. The school was originally named the Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind, later the Blind Asylum and following Royal patronage the Royal School for the Blind, Liverpool. It was founded by Edward Rushton, an abolitionist and rights campaigner, who became blind after contracting a contagious disease from the ‘human cargo’ on the ship he worked on. He worked to improve conditions for the slaves aboard the ship and so had increased contact with them. Slavery, poor conditions, inequality and poverty were themes that Rushton continued to campaign against during his lifetime. The Royal School for the Blind aimed to ‘afford relief to those persons who were labouring under the complicated misfortunes of poverty and blindness’ by engaging them in a variety of occupations.
To share our research with a wider audience we worked with the local branch of the Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) to develop creative content for our exhibition. Young People from Mersey and Dee YAC branch helped develop a sensory story that was created by students at the Royal School for the Blind, Liverpool. The sensory story aims to share the history of the school through a soundscape, objects, scents and text. In addition to developing content we wanted to provide the young people with an opportunity to better understand the social model of disability and gain an insight into what being blind or partially sighted might mean for them as archaeologists.
The session included a number of activities where disability heritage could be explored further. One activity we took part in was a finds recording and building recording task using a variety of visual impairment glasses loaned to us by the Royal School for the Blind. The young people experienced various degrees of visual impairment whilst recording finds using a standard recording sheet and tactile rulers. Following the activity we discussed some of the challenges they had experienced and how these could be overcome. Subscribing to the social model of disability the young people shared examples of how the physical environment could be changed to suit everyone’s needs, how apps could be developed to support people with visual impairments and how attitudes could potentially make being an archaeologist difficult. The young people were proactive in identifying ways in which the barriers to inclusion could be overcome and were particularly engaged with discussing how disability language had developed through history.
We also worked to develop the sensory story, an object based story exploring the history of the school, further by testing out objects and scripts. The imaginations of the young people helped to refine the story and ensure that only the really interesting things are included! Part of the story involved Edward Rushton’s life before he founded the school and the young people tried to include a sea monster in the story! We enjoyed exploring royal visits, traditional crafts and school activities as part of the history of the school.
It is through working with the next generation of archaeologists that we can use the past to inform and shape the future. What struck me most about working with the young people was their knowledge and acceptance of disability. Many of the young people had friends or family members who identified as disabled, identified as disabled themselves or recognised the wide variety of disabilities which meant they already subscribed to the social model of disability. Their attitudes gave me hope that the next generation of archaeologists will seek to uncover and share hidden heritage.
We would love you to keep in touch with the History of Place project by subscribing to our newsletter http://historyof.place/about-2/sign-up-to-our-newsletter/.
If you would like to get involved with History of Place, you can find job opportunities via Screen South or find out more on the History of Place volunteering page http://historyof.place/volunteering/