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Historic stories of disability

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

A new film from the National Trust and the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) will share ten stories of disability from collections and sites in the Trust’s care.

The film, available to watch online, examines the lives of figures such as Henry VIII, and lesser-known individuals like Irish MP Nicholas Ward.

‘Everywhere and Nowhere’ has been commissioned as part of the National Trust’s work to share diverse and untold stories from the places and collections in its care.

This project draws on RCMG’s research into disability representation, and experiences of disability at the center of how stories are researched, interpreted, and presented.

Alongside the story of Henry VIII – who became dependent on mobility aids for much of his life – is artist Christopher Samuel’s story of a portrait of Sir Jeffrey Hudson and Queen Henrietta Maria, which hangs at Petworth House. Sir Jeffrey is widely described as “the Queen’s Dwarf”.

The University of Leicester said the interpretation of the painting has largely focused on the Queen or sensationalised Sir Jeffrey’s life, presenting him in a stereotypical way. In Everywhere and Nowhere Sir Jeffrey is presented as “a person in his own right, with a complex, full and rounded life.”

Dr Sarah Plumb, Senior Research Associate at the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester explained: “Behind the film lies a year-long research collaboration – although a complex endeavour, our research to date suggests that connections to disability are indeed everywhere, threaded through our heritage buildings and landscapes, the lives, collections and archival material attached to them.

“Disabled people from the past can often be presented in reductive or stereotypical ways; in some cases, we found taking a fresh look at historical records revealed those same lives filled with opportunity and autonomy, influence and adventure, love and joy.”

John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Curation and Experience at the National Trust said the research has “revealed many stories of disability built and woven into heritage buildings and objects.

“It has given us confidence to share histories which are all around us but not always represented at our places – those stories are quite literally everywhere and nowhere.

“It has helped us learn who we should work with and what standards we need to reach in making history accessible to disabled people; and it has inspired us to do more in the future.”

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