NORFOLK Museums Service
‘Toby Tea Pot’, 19th century © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Hidden Histories

Discovering Disability in Norwich’s Museum Collections

What is a “hidden history”? Is it something we are ashamed of or a wonderful secret? I think it is both. I think there are some wonderful secrets in our museum collections, and we should perhaps be ashamed that we have not acknowledged them until now.

Museum objects are evidence of our shared culture and heritage, the physical embodiment of our society. However, interpretation in museums rarely tells stories that are representative of society. Many people are marginalised through physical or mental disability, ethnic origin, sexual orientation or social class. But the objects themselves contain “hidden histories”, capable of telling the stories of people who are not represented in museum displays.

Some disabilities are far from hidden, indeed are celebrated. Horatio Nelson is recognised throughout the world for having an eye patch and one empty sleeve tucked into his jacket. Van Gogh’s mental illness is recognised as an integral part of his artistic genius. Monet’s cataracts affected his use of colour in his later paintings and resulted in a vibrant visual experience.

This project is about uncovering the hidden histories of people with disabilities, thereby revealing fascinating insights into our culture and enabling more people to see themselves in our museums and enjoy our services. It is about cultural entitlement, the right everyone has to contribute to and share in our cultural heritage. We have found out that the Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service has a wide range of collections reflecting the experience of living with a disability from fine art to shoes. All the Norwich museum collections were involved in the initial survey, even Natural History. One of our most famous geology specimens, the West Runton elephant, was disabled and died an early death due to a leg injury. This is all part of ongoing work to improve access to collections and services. It has inspired staff to revisit collections and augment documentation with a wider range of information. In addition to identifying objects already in our collections the project has given us ideas for contemporary collecting that will better reflect society today and bring older stories up to date.

This work is being supported by our Access Advisory Group and funded through the Renaissance in the Regions programme. It is very appropriate that the Renaissance strap-line is “museums for changing lives”. We trust that Hidden Histories will change people’s lives and perceptions.

Vanessa Trevelyan
Head of Museums, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

View the online exhibition.