Hidden Histories – Ruth Burwood

In 2006 Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service undertook a piece of research looking at what museum artefacts could tell us about the experience of living with a disability in the past. Museum staff in Norwich had become aware that the displays in museums often only represent a particular version/experience of the past, and therefore exclude some parts of the community. Our own Disability Access Advisory Group also commented that they did not see themselves in the displays, and felt that the stories of disabled people in the past were missing from our museums.

 In order to address this, we decided that we wanted to find out what relevant objects existed in our collections and why they had become hidden. We also wanted to ensure that in future, anyone could discover these objects and the stories they told. With approximately 1.5 million objects and specimens in store, we were excited about what we might find…

 Working with the Access Advisory Group, staff developed a list of key search terms and questions that we wanted answered. We then began to trawl through our computerized museum catalogue and to interview curators in order to build a list of relevant objects. The results were both fascinating and surprising.

 We discovered that there are many reasons why an object might become hidden – sometimes mistakes had been made in how an object was recorded in the catalogue, and on other occasions curators in the past had been so sensitive about how to describe objects associated with disability, that the reference and sometimes the significance had been lost.

 ImagePlaster cast of head of man with hydrocephalus, 18th century.

The actual objects that we discovered were varied and ranged from clothing to water colour paintings. We looked at collectors and artists as well as aids and equipment as we discovered the personal stories of disabled people in the past. Some of most interesting finds were in the Decorative Art and Textile collections. It was through this research that two of the items featured in the Frayed exhibition received a revival of interest – the Lorina Bulwer samplers and the John Craske embroidery. Lorina’s samplers (sometimes referred to as embroidered letters) represent a remarkable body of work created she was resident in the female lunatic ward of Great Yarmouth workhouse. John Craske’s embroidery was also worked on inside and outside institutions, and throughout a difficult life coping with depression and ill health.


ImageToby ‘peg-leg’ teapot.

Other objects raised mixed responses. For example the Toby teapot (pictured above), which is in the form of a man with a wooden leg (the spout).  Considered pretty unsightly by some, this teapot was a favourite amongst others working on the project.  Other objects enabled staff to make connections between events, buildings and people. One example was the Braille pocket watch that belonged to John Abbs.  This item had been incorrectly spelt in the catalogue, and was therefore ‘hidden’ to anyone searching using the word ‘braille’ or ‘Abbs’.  By doing research on the watch, staff highlighted other possessions and connections within the museum collections, including Abbs’ business card and photographs.

 It was very important to us that the research was used to improve the way that museums deal with objects associated with disability, and there have been many positive outcomes of the project since, including an oral history project and school workshops. Museum staff have also continued to work on improving the catalogue descriptions for objects. Perhaps the most significant steps forward however, have been to remove some of these objects from stores and to put them on display in our museums. This was achieved in 2007 through a special Hidden Histories trail in Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. Since then, more of these fascinating objects have been displayed at Norwich Castle – some as part of temporary exhibitions and others as permanent fixtures.


ImageUnknown family portrait, 1920s.

The Frayed exhibition has given another great opportunity to showcase some of these collections with previously hidden histories. Through looking at these items in terms of what might have motivated the maker, or indeed, how creating the pieces might have helped them, museum visitors are able to connect with the personal stories behind them. It is also another important step forward in opening up dialogue about mental health, and reminds people living today with a disability that they too are a part of the stories represented in our museums.

The Hidden Histories report is available as a booklet, a PDF file, in large print, Braille or on Audio CD. Please contact ruth.burwood@norfolk.gov.uk if you would like a copy, or click here for the PDF.

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