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Representing disability in museums: Absence and discourse

Hunt, Miriam 2023. Representing disability in museums: Absence and discourse. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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Museums have the potential to challenge societal prejudice, presenting new perspectives and counternarratives which support social inclusion and activism (Janes and Sandell 2019, 2019a). However, research suggests that many museums reproduce societal discourses and power dynamics rather than challenge them (Bennett 2020, Roque Martins 2018). This thesis intends to question how museum collections, galleries, and programming interact with societal discourses about disability, in particular. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s accounts of discourse (1971, 1972), it explores how historic and contemporary ideas about disability are reproduced and/or contested in museum collections, galleries, and activities. To this end, it reviews existing literature of representation in contemporary debates in critical disability studies and museum studies; and empirically investigates how meaning is co-created and communicated by staff and visitors in museum spaces and practices. Using Stuart Hall’s (1980) ‘encoding/decoding’ model, it considers how museums use collections and community engagement to produce and communicate narratives about history; and how visitors experience and interpret museum galleries to navigate issues of heritage, identity, and ‘fact’. Reflecting on archival research, interviews, and focus groups conducted at Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales, the analysis explores accounts of using museum collections, activities, and galleries to deepen our understanding of issues surrounding disability in the past and present. It argues that, despite AC-MW’s ambition to become an ‘activist’ museum and challenge prejudice, representations in AC-MW’s galleries reproduce societal ideas about disabled people, who are conspicuously absent from Welsh history narratives. It explores how complexity in communication of meaning in museum practice contributes to this obdurate problem. In particular, it argues that meaning is negotiated between museum professionals and visitors, influenced by different perceptions of what it means to be disabled, historical development of collections and documentation, and competing discourses about the nature of expertise.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Date Type: Completion
Status: Unpublished
Schools: Social Sciences (Includes Criminology and Education)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Funders: ESRC (ES/P00069X/1)
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 12 December 2023
Last Modified: 12 Dec 2023 16:35

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