“Re-Framing Disability”, a major exhibition on loan from the Royal College of Physicians, London, is currently on display at Dublin City Library and Archive, 138-144 Pearse Street, Dublin 2 until 28 September 2012.
The exhibition consists of a series 17th-19th century portraits of disabled individuals. Some of the images are self-portraits such as one of artist Matthew Buchinger (see image right) . Others featured include the first Siamese twins ‘Chang and Eng Bunker’ (1811-74), an image of the ‘giant’ Chang Yu Sing (1847-93), a print of John Boby who had vitiligo (skin disorder) titled ‘the wonderful spotted Indian’, and several portraits of parasitic twins.
Right: Self-portrait by disabled artist Matthew Buchinger (b. 1647). Image Copyright Royal College of Physicians, London
The exhibition also explores the lives and characters behind these images and gives some sense of how disability was consider 400 years ago. A large proportion of those featured exhibited themselves to earn a living, a career which was not necessarily considered demeaning. Many of the individuals were talented, well-educated, married, had large families, and their disability was only one aspect of their lives. Others had sadder existences and less control over their lives, Sara Baartman (1789-1815) for example was often poked with sticks and umbrellas when she was on public display . The manager of ‘Giant’ Chan Yu Sing did not allow him to go out in public.
Arguably the most interesting aspect of this multi-media exhibition is that the historic images are juxtaposed by contemporary portraits and discussions by 27 disabled participants. Issues such as representation of disability in the media in the twenty-first century, treatment by the medical profession, and negative stereotypes are examined. The contemporary portraits are accompanied by quotes from each participant, and unlike their historic counterparts, the disability of the individual is not identified. It is the voice rather than the ‘label’ of the participant that is the focus.
Creating and displaying such an exhibition is obviously a contentious issue. There is a genuine concern that it may create offence, or become a ‘freak show’ gallery. The approach by Royal College of Physicians, London, which has included disabled people in all aspects of the project, has resulted in a sensitive and challenging exploration of historic and contemporary attitudes towards disability.