Who belongs in the murder clinic? The trouble with Nebel im August

By Ylva Söderfeldt

Germany is obsessed with narratives – movies, TV-series, novels – about its 20th century history. The most successful exports in later years have dealt with Nazi crimes and GDR oppression, not to mention the many productions directed at national audiences. No doubt, several of these works have been both of an outstanding artistic quality as well as having contributed to public awareness about the past, not least also about the continuities into and effects on the present German society.

One of the current movies on this theme (in the theatre where I watched it, there were at least two other films about Nazi Germany currently on the program) is somewhat unusual in that it addresses the murdering of sick and disabled people during the Second World War. Based on a novel that was in turn based on an actual biography, Nebel im August (Gloom in August) tells the story of Ernst Lossa (Ivo Pietzcker), who was murdered at the age of fourteen in a clinic in Irsee on August 9, 1944.
Lossa was Yenish, a minority that suffered persecution under the Nazis, had lost his mother, and was furthermore considered to have behavioral problems, all factors contributing to his institutionalization. We encounter him in the movie as he is transferred to the clinic in Irsee after having been in a series of other facilities. The initial impression is twofold: Lossa appears relieved at the friendly attitude he encounters from the head clinician Walter Veithausen (Sebastian Koch), but reacts with fear and contempt when he meets his fellow inmates, protesting that he doesn’t belong among "idiots".

A young boy with shaved head Ernst Lossa (Ivo Pietzcker)  is being viewed by a doctor Dr. Werner Veithausen (Sebastian Koch) standing behind him. Courtesy of StudioCanal.
A young boy with shaved head Ernst Lossa (Ivo Pietzcker)  is being
viewed by a doctor Dr. Werner Veithausen (Sebastian Koch) standing behind him. Courtesy of StudioCanal.
Between working in the fields and daydreaming of emigration, Lossa however soon comes to witness what quietly goes on in the clinic: inmates are being killed. At first, they disappear in enigmatic transports, then given lethal doses of medicine or deliberately starved on the premises.
The story is told at a slow pace and offers the viewers an almost excessive amount of scenic footage. At the same time, it is packed with information. When the camera doesn’t sweep over a beautiful landscape or interiors reminiscent of Vermeer paintings, it follows the protagonists in dialogues that painfully incorporate as many facts as possible about the ‚euthanasia’ programs. The ideological backdrop, the bureaucratic particulars, the role of scientific research as well as the Catholic church: it’s all in there, represented in the clearest way possible. This makes the viewing tedious, and the experience more like reading a Wikipedia entry than following a story. It is thanks to the generally very good acting and in particular Pietzcker’s brilliant performance, as well as David Bennent in an outstanding supporting role, that the movie still manages to engage and touch the viewer beyond the mere telling of historical facts.

A nurse (Henriette Confurius) hands a drink to a boy in a hospital bed. Courtesy of StudioCanal.
A nurse (Henriette Confurius) hands a drink to a boy in a hospital bed. Courtesy of StudioCanal.

This tendency to be overly pedagogic is a common trait for the genre and for German film in general (in a German detective story, you always know who the killer is, no mystery is tolerated). But it might also be due to the specific topic. The makers cannot anticipate that the viewers bring much previous knowledge into the theatre, and obviously felt it necessary to clearly lay out the facts in order to tell the story.

More troubling is the message that follows Ernst Lossa’s story throughout, and is articulated by one of his caretakers – and possibly, his killer  – "but he is a healthy boy!" The idea that Lossa "does not belong there" never quite leaves us even though his alliance shifts away from the staff and to his fellow inmates as the plot unfolds. This trope is all too familiar in narratives about the Nazi crimes against the sick and disabled: outrage tends to be directed especially at the abuse and murder of those who ‘weren’t even actually sick’ but ‘just’ labelled antisocial and degenerate. That line of reasoning, of course, implies that some people did ‘belong there’ and that certain illnesses and disabilities were, if not rightful, at least understandable grounds for extermination. From a public disability history perspective this particular presupposition  is precisely what needs to be questioned, and it is unfortunate that this production does not take the opportunity to do so.

Two boys with shaved heads(Niklas Post and Ivo Pietzcker) and a man (David Bennent) sit outdoors by a pile of potatoes looking amused and shocked. Behind them, men are making baskets.  Courtesy of StudioCanal.
Two boys with shaved heads(Niklas Post and Ivo Pietzcker) and a man (David Bennent)
sit outdoors by a pile of potatoes looking amused and shocked. Behind them, men are making baskets.
Courtesy of StudioCanal.

Nebel im August
StudioCanal, Germany, 2016
Director: Kai Wessel
Screenplay: Holger Karsten Schmidt
Lead cast: Ivo Pietzcker, Sebastian Koch, Thomas Schubert, Fritzi Haberlandt, Henriette Confurius

Recommended Citation:
Ylva Södrfeldt (2016): Who belongs in the murder clinic? The trouble with Nebel im August. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 18.


Seeing Our History – Outdoor Blind People in Edwardian Scotland

By Iain Hutchison

Seeing Our History is a Heritage Lottery Fund-supported research project conducted in 2014/15 by the Royal National Institute of the Blind-Scotland and aided in practical terms by Lothian Health Services Archive and the National Records of Scotland. The basis of the project was a Register of Outdoor Blind people living in Edinburgh and the southeast of Scotland between 1903 and 1910. The Register had been poorly compiled with many incomplete entries, but this gave added incentive to research volunteers in their quest to reconstruct the lives of outdoor blind people – people living in their communities and beyond the patronage of the Edinburgh Blind Asylum and its workshops.

Members of the Seeing Our History research team. (Photo: Iain Hutchison)
Members of the Seeing Our History research team
(Photo: Iain Hutchison)
The project team, consisting of research volunteers some of whom have sight loss, Dr Iain Hutchison, the project research historian, and Dr Catriona Burness, RNIB-Scotland’s senior research officer, had several potential lines of enquiry from which to choose. With 1,170 entries in the Register, a quantitative study was attractive, but when the incomplete nature of many entries was confronted, and numerous duplications identified, a qualitative approach was seen to hold greater potential.

Selling matches in
Edinburgh's Old Town
(Photo: City of Edinburgh Council)
Several detailed case studies resulted from this qualitative strategy and as life stories were developed, the study extended well beyond the eight years during which entries were made in the Register. The Edinburgh Mission to Outdoor Blind, the first such mission in Scotland, founded in 1857, had the instruction of tactile print as its primary objective. It used the Moon system exclusively for four decades before also embracing braille. Its concern was that blind people living among the sighted population should not be deprived of access to religious works. The Edinburgh Blind Asylum was also guided by a strong religious ethos, but the workshops that were the core of its activities meant that it catered for productive and therefore ‘ablebodied’ blind people.
The outdoor blind tended to be those blind people ‘disabled’ from working, or who, if they did work, earned insufficient money for it to provide meaningful self-support. They included elderly people, people who had lost a trade due to accident-related blindness, married women and widows, paupers confined to poorhouses, and the Mission’s so-called ‘migrant class’ whose claim to independence was in reality a precarious existence in lodging houses and temporary accommodation.

The primary output from the project was a book entitled Feeling Our History. The title emphasised not only the role of tactile print to people with sight loss, but the emotions affecting individual lives along with their tribulations, successes, and diverse social relationships. The book presented the project finds in two ways. One was through a selection of themes tracing the work of the Missions to Outdoor Blind and the broader experiences of blind people in such spheres as employment, education, poverty, communication, religion and charitable intervention. The second approach was to showcase the lives of ten of the people whom our researchers had explored in detail.

The book was produced in five formats in order to provide maximum accessibility to people with sight loss, and included large print, braille, audio and e-book formats. An interesting discovery was that people with total sight loss, in addition to other options, also wished to have a standard print version of the book so that it could be passed around their sighted friends.

The project had also undertaken to produce six podcasts for Insight Radio (now renamed Connect Radio), the radio station of RNIB. The podcasts, each lasting about ten minutes, were scripted in consultation with individual researchers and combined their case study investigations with a chosen broader theme.

Lizzie Hoseason spent her final years in a mental asylum where this image was taken. (Photo: Lothian Health Services Archive, Edinburgh University Library)
Lizzie Hoseason spent her final years in a
mental asylum where this image was taken.
(Photo: Lothian Health Services Archive,
Edinburgh University Library)
The podcast preparatory work opened up two unanticipated additional opportunities. The Missions to Outdoor Blind approved of certain occupations for the blind people in which it took an interest, but disapproved of others. It took a jaundiced view of street musicians whose activities, it thought, were akin to begging and might take them to unsavoury locations such as public houses. Street musicians were also free spirits and that didn’t suit the missionaries either. But what kind of music did they play? Music hall was popular among the general public and singer/songwriter Sarah Caltieri drew on music hall numbers to create the theme tune adopted for the podcast intros and to craft lyrics that told the story of Lizzie Hoseason, one of our characters, and her daughter, Sophie.

The second opportunity was to produce an additional, smaller book, which showcased the podcast scripts. It was entitled Hearing Our History.

The podcasts and the books can be accessed at: http://www.insightradio.co.uk/seeingourhistory.html#.V3PPjfkrLIU

Recommended Citation:
Iain Hutchison (2016): Seeing Our History – Outdoor Blind People in Edwardian Scotland. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 17.


Doing Public Disability History

By Daniel Blackie

The clue is in the name. Public disability history is ultimately about getting people – the public – to think about disability history. Simple as that. Only it’s not really that simple, is it? As I’ve found out over the past few years, doing public disability history is actually quite challenging.

The first, and most important, thing to consider is how to reach the public? During the Disability and Industrial Society project I learned that there are many ways to do this and that the best public engagement strategies employ as many of them as possible.

For example, our public engagement programme included a touring museum exhibition, public lectures, panel discussions and workshops, as well as regular blogposts, tweets, podcasts and pieces in the popular media. Although very different formats, all involved writing to greater or lesser extents. The text for the panels displayed in the exhibition, the notes for lectures, the emails back-and-forth with journalists. Writing, writing, writing. And this is something disability historians have to think about when doing public history.

Disability and Industrial Society’s Blog page. Blog posts were an important part of the team’s public engagement strategy
Disability and Industrial Society’s Blog page
Blog posts were an important part of the team’s public engagement strategy
Perhaps the most obvious issue in this regard is length. A 140 character tweet, a 150 word exhibition panel, a thousand word blog post, a one hour lecture: all impose space or time constraints that mean we have to choose our words carefully.  As too do people’s attention spans. 

It doesn’t matter how great or interesting the message, there’s only so long you can realistically expect to hold a person’s attention. Short and sweet is definitely best when it comes to public engagement. Language is also important. It’s no good presenting disability history in terms that nobody but specialists can understand. Clear, jargon-free language is absolutely essential if you want to reach as wide an audience as possible. 

Grabbing people’s attention is another challenge. Images and objects can be a help here. I visited our exhibition a few times after it opened at the National Waterfront Museum in Wales.  It was one of several exhibitions visitors to the museum could visit, so we had lots of competition for people’s attention. Every time I visited, I noticed some visitors start to rush past ‘our’ part of the building, presumably on their way to enjoy something else the museum had to offer. Many, however, quickly stopped in their tracks after an image or artefact in our exhibition caught their attention. Most lingered a while and started to examine other aspects of our displays, some at quite great length.

‘Falling in of a Mine’ (1869). One of the images featured in our exhibition
‘Falling in of a Mine’ (1869)
One of the images featured in our exhibition
The perspectives and stories we choose to highlight can also act as ‘hooks’ to entice members of the public to stop and think about disability history. Dramatic historical episodes or incidents, can be especially useful in this regard. 

During our research for the Disability and Industrial Society project, for instance, we uncovered the story of two mining brothers from south Wales – Davy and Griffith Ellis. Griffith had a mobility impairment and used a wooden leg. In December 1865, both brothers were working underground at Gethin Colliery when a terrible explosion occurred. Fearing suffocation from the deadly gases that followed the blast, they attempted to get out of the mine together as quickly as possible. Due to his mobility impairment, however, Griffith had trouble keeping up with his brother and fell behind. Worried that he might not make it to the surface in time, Griffith called out for help and his loyal brother went back to get him. It was a fateful decision as both men perished, overwhelmed by the noxious gases they tried so hard to escape. 

Incidents like this have a clear ‘human interest’ element that appeals to journalists and the general public alike. Emphasising them in our public engagement activities can help make disability history interesting to audiences beyond academia, furthering the field’s broader goals. Who doesn’t like a good story? Good stories (even ones with sad endings) have the power to entertain and hold people’s attention, but the best ones do much more than that, especially in a public history context. 

The drama, excitement, and tragedy of the Ellis brothers’ desperate and unsuccessful flight for safety is riveting, but it is also intriguing and raises lots of disability-related questions. For instance, how were men with significant impairments like Griffith able to work in such a physically demanding and dangerous sector as the nineteenth-century coal industry? By suggesting the question, moreover, the case of Griffith Ellis unsettles popular ideas about disabled people’s capacity for work. This is exactly the kind of thing disability history is supposed to do: challenge dominant disability stereotypes and get people to rethink their attitudes about disabled people. 

Yet this approach is not without potential pitfalls. Using dramatic, exciting, tragic, inspiring or disturbing ‘hooks’ to capture public imagination also risks enforcing some of the stereotypes public disability history seeks to undermine. Without proper contextualisation, for instance, Griffith Ellis’s story might become just another tale of heroic overcoming that feeds the pernicious ‘supercrip’ stereotype disability scholars and activists frequently critique. Alternatively, focusing on his death might promote the idea that disabled people have been little more than passive victims in history. 

Ultimately, of course, we cannot determine or control the interpretations people arrive at when they encounter public disability history. We can suggest a framework for making sense of the images, stories, and objects we present in our public engagement activities, but we cannot compel people to adopt it. At its best, public disability history spurs people to find out more about the still largely hidden history of disability on their own, with friends, or with their families, and gives them some ideas about where and how they might start looking.

Recommended Citation:
Daniel Blackie (2016): Doing Public Disability History. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 16.


‘Whose idea was it?’ Institutionalisation, State Policy and the Intellectually Disabled in 1950s Ireland

By David Kilgannon

‘They took the liberty of doing things, and the things they have done were an awful lot of evil things … I was only a young, innocent boy and I went through evil things that I didn’t want to go through. I went through their devilish hands … I was only dirt.’ (Ryan 5.85)

Above is the pseudonymous account of Graham from the 2009 Report of the Irish ‘Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse’ (The Ryan Commission). Graham was sexually abused as a child at a Catholic run special-needs institution,  Our Lady of Good Counsel in Glanmire, Co. Cork. Tragically, Graham’s experience was far from exceptional, as the publication of the Ferns Report (2005), the McCoy Report (2007), the Murphy Report (2009) and the Ryan Report have highlighted the widespread institutionalisation and physical/sexual abuse of vulnerable children in Catholic run institutions in twentieth century Ireland. One strain of this wider phenomenon was the abuse of intellectually disabled children within institutions designed for their care. Concluding his testimony to the Ryan Commission, Graham posed a question. He asked: ‘Whose idea was it to grab children and fill their schools up with children, [the authorities] not knowing what was going on?’ (5.86)

To answer Graham’s question is challenging, as it requires an examination of state policy towards intellectually disabled children in the 1950s. This examination is necessary as the 1950s were a pivotal period for the establishment of the Irish system of disability care, in which Catholic run institutions became a central component of the state’s overall policy. Indeed, the 1950s saw a huge expansion in the capacity of Catholic Church run institutions to care for disabled children, growing from 1,168 residential places across seven institutions in 1950 to 2,620 places across fourteen institutions in 1960.

One reason for the propagation of Catholic institutional care lay in one of the predominant forces shaping state policy in 1950s Ireland, that of subsidiarity. This idea, which originated in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), held that ‘the task of the state … was to facilitate activity by other groups and persons within the community but not to supersede these if they were working with reasonable efficacy.’ In the case of the intellectually disabled, subsidiarity meant encouraging the development of voluntary sector efforts to care for this group. The state should not involve itself directly in the care of the disabled, the encyclical describing such an idea as ‘a great evil and disturbance of right order.’ The spread of subsidiarity was aided by a more general shift in Irish governance methods from the late 1940s onwards, as the state became more committed to Catholic concepts of statehood. Thus, to create a system of publicly funded, but privately operated, institutions aligned with the dominant ethos of Irish public policy in the 1950s.

A second probable reason lies in bureaucratic inertia within the Department of Health. Minutes from a meeting in November 1953 discuss three possible avenues ‘for providing [further] accommodation for mental defectives.’ These options were: Catholic run institutions, Catholic managed institutions with lay staff or institutions operated by local councils. Yet, while there were three options, only Catholic run institutions were considered by the Department of Health. Indeed, even the initial November 1953 meeting to consider the three options focused solely on religious run institutions, the minutes bemoaned ‘the reluctance of male orders to undertake further schemes.’ At the same meeting, Dr. Dolphin (a senior civil servant within the Department) noted his plans to visit a number of religious orders, including the La Sagesse order in Liverpool, the Order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary and the Augustinian Nuns, all to ‘enquire into their capacity for undertaking the care of Mental Defectives and the possible location of an institution which they might set up.’ Thus, both the prevailing trend within the state and the orientation of influential civil servants favoured an expansion of Church run institutions to care for the intellectually disabled.

This helps to account for the growth of these institutions in the 1950s, but not the lack of oversight from the state. The Ryan Commission alone, for example, noted the almost total absence of oversight from the state into conditions within church run institutions. A key reason for this may lie in the venerated position of Catholic religious orders in Irish life. Within the Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann), the work of religious orders was almost incessantly portrayed as beyond reproach, with members of Parliament (Teachta Dála) describing how it was ‘a revelation to go into these institutions and see the spirit of devotion, self-sacrifice and loyalty’ displayed by orders like the Brothers of Charity in the care of the intellectually disabled. Such veneration of the role of religious orders may account for why Graham’s institution, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Glanmire, did not receive an official inspection from either the Department of Health or the Southern Health Board ‘between the period 1939 and 1990.’ (5.39)

Hence, to even begin to answer Graham’s question requires interrogating a diverse range of influences that shaped mid-twentieth century Ireland. These forces determined the acceptable form of care for children with intellectual disabilities, leaving the state as the funder for a network of privately run uninspected institutions. Combined with the norms that venerated the authority and probity of the clergy, the Irish state produced an toxically insular system of disability provision, in which the abuse described by Graham could truly flourish.
Pictures of the home ‚Our Lady of Good Counsel“ and the Ryan Commission report
Pictures of the home ‚Our Lady of Good Counsel“ and the Ryan Commission report 

Works cited:
  • Barrington, Ruth. Health, Medicine & Politics in Ireland, 1900-1970. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 1987.
  • Power, Andrew et al. Active Citizenship & Disability: Implementing the Personalisation of Support. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Ryan, Seán et al. The Commission to Inquire into Child Child Abuse. Dublin, 2009.
  • Whyte, John Henry. Church and State in Modern Ireland, 1923-1970. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1971.

Recommended Citation
David Kilgannon (2016): ‘Whose idea was it?’ Institutionalisation, State Policy and the Intellectually Disabled in 1950s Ireland. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 15.

About the author:
David Kilgannon is a Wellcome Trust PhD researcher in the History Department of the National University of Ireland, Galway. He was previously a Hardimann Scholar and a Wellcome Trust MA student. His research looks at the varied experiences of persons with intellectual disabilities in Ireland from 1947 to 1996. His previous research looked at the experience of AIDS activists in Ireland from 1983-9. 
Academia.edu: https://insight-centre.academia.edu/DavidKilgannon


Summer break

Dear readers, it's time for Public Disability History to go on its first summer break. In the seven months since launching the blog we've covered a wide range of topics, but that's only a first taste of how disability history can go public! On the meta-level, the blog itself is of course a way of publicly engaging scholars, activists, and the general public in a discussion on disability in history. The feedback from you, our readers, has shown that it works. We will be back in September, until then, keep reading the blog, maybe there's a post you missed in the archives, and keep commenting and messaging us. Maybe you'll also find one or another reading tip of pieces that deal with disability history.

Best summer wishes,
Sebastian, Anne, Pieter, and Ylva

Summer scene, drawing by a child
Summer scene for the summer break


A life less worth living: "Agent Orange" and the representation of disability in the War Remnants Museum

By Gaby Admon-Rick and Ahiya Kamara

Photo of Neuygen Thi Men
Neuygen Thi Men
Neuygen Thi Men lives in the Vu Thu district, Thai Binh province. When the original photo was taken by the photographer Doan Duch Minh, she was 21 years old. "Tragically," as the text beneath the photo reads, "she must remain in a cage-like enclosure all her life. All day long, Men attempts to chew and swallow anything within her grasp. Suddenly, as she recognizes her father, she extends her hand through her enclosure, reaching for him. Her father, Nguyen van Hang spent fighting in the Trung Son Mountains he was contaminated by Agent Orange."

Neuygen Thi Men and many more people with disabilities are presented at a special exhibition on Agent Orange at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. The Museum is a "must" for visitors to Vietnam, interested in learning about the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective. Like many other war museums all over the world, the museum includes details of the war, its atrocities and casualties, and describes the military actions and weapons of destruction used. Towards the end of the visit, the visitors are led to a special exhibit on "Agent Orange".

Agent Orange was the military name of herbicides used by the US Military during the Vietnam War in order to destroy crops, bushes and trees in order to gain a tactical advantage over the Viet Cong while fighting in these areas. The exhibition emphasizes the relationship between the exposure to Agent Orange and birth impairments. It is claimed, that this substance has led to the birth of 150,000 impaired children since the Vietnam War until today. While the issue raises many questions, we would like to focus on the way disability is portrayed in this exhibition influencing the way millions of visitors every year understand disability.

Photo of Le Van Hung
Le Van Hung
The exhibit starts with an explanation about the substance and its uses, and then continues with hundreds of photos of disabled people, in what seems to be a "freak show" of photos depicting extreme deformity, misery and tragedy. As the visitors walk through the exhibition they read stories of other people with disabilities, like the story of Le Van Hung, from the Commune Dong Thinh in District Dong Son, Thanh Hoe Province. He was 23 years old when this photo was taken. His parents had fought in the war in 1971. The photo depicts him in a position that resembles an animal, and the text beneath the photo says: "He cannot stand with his legs parallel but he can crawl to get around by his hands, take straw and cook for helping his family day."

Visitors walk through this exhibition with tears in their eyes. They appear heartbroken, overwhelmed by pity and sadness. Maybe they even feel disgust and anger as they gaze at what is portrayed as the "deformed" human body. By this "othering" process, they might also appreciate their own abled body and their fortune, empathize with the victims and feel enraged by the usage of chemicals in warfare.

While the purpose of the exhibition is to convey the horrors and tragedy of the war, it uses the images of disability to do so. Through the portrayal of disability in the exhibition, the visitors learn that impaired people have no meaning to their life and they are destined to a life less worth living.  They are told that people with disabilities are not able to perform daily activities and – as a result – are destined to be excluded, live in poverty, become dependent on others and never gain education or employment. It is not mentioned that services, assistive equipment or technology could be provided or that the governments have a crucial role in social services, combating stigma and making environments accessible. Indeed, for people with disabilities in many places in the world, this seems to be the reality of life.  With limited resources invested by the state, people with disabilities are not able to achieve full participation in all areas of life, as required by the UN-Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Walking through this exhibition, we couldn't stop thinking what the people in those photos would say if they were asked about their lives. How would they represent themselves? How would they tell their life story if they had the opportunity to do so? What are their hopes and dreams? Would they be concerned about the lack of services and discrimination? What would they think about the public images of persons with disabilities and those portrayed in this exhibition?

Photo of Lai Van Hung, 20, and Lai Van Manh, 19
Lai Van Hung, 20, and Lai Van Manh, 19.
"Lai Van Hung, 20, and Lai Van Manh, 19. Each suffers from the same physical disabilities: they are paralyzed, brain damaged, unable to speak coherently, and must spend their days lying on a wooden bed in a corner of their house."

Recommended Citation
Gaby Admon-Rick & Ahiya Kamara (2016): A life less worth living: "Agent Orange" and the representation of disability in the War Remnants Museum. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 14.
Notice: Photos of exhibit were taken by authors for illustration purposes.


Making of an accessible exhibition on Disability History. Experiences from LeibEigenschaften. Der „beschädigte“ Körper im Blick der Vormoderne [The pre-modern view on the ”impaired” body]

By Sonja Kinzler (curator)

Although calls for accessibility aren’t new, still relatively few curators are devoted to accessible shows. The exhibition LeibEigenschaften1 was part of the the DFG-funded research project "Homo debilis" at the Bremen University History Department. The 100 square meter exhibition was on display in the Bremen House of Science in March and April 2012. LeibEigenschaften aimed at a high level of accessibility and succeeded thanks to the interest among the involved parties to create something beyond the traditional modes of communication in museum displays, creating a choice of channels to receive the contents (vision, sound, touch; accommodation of cognitive and mobility restrictions). That the topic itself was Disability History was an important motivation for the team behind the exhibition.

Cordula Nolte, Professor in Medieval History at Bremen University, realized this potential early on and actively sought cooperation with local disability activists, a curator (myself), exhibition designers (ZwoAcht), and students from Bremen University and Bremen University of Arts. This concentrated competence made it possible to realize the project even on a limited budget. The exhibition was made to fit the House of Science. There was a great interest, however, in adapting it as an accessible, traveling exhibition, but those plans had to be cancelled due to lack of funding.

Lucas Cranach the Elder: “Jüngstes Gericht, heilige Elisabeth  und heilige Magdalena”, 1519. Collection of the Veste Coburg.
Lucas Cranach the Elder:
“Jüngstes Gericht, heilige Elisabeth
und heilige Magdalena”, 1519.
Collection of the Veste Coburg.
Purpose of LeibEigenschaften was to present living conditions and coping strategies of physically (and mentally) conspicuous people in the pre-modern period. The conceptualizing process started with us finding an agreement on what we considered to be the most important characteristics of the period in general, and deciding against a chronological presentation. We put emphasis on countering popular misconceptions about the way embodied difference was dealt with at the time: No, suffering wasn’t generally seen as divine punishment, and "disabled" persons weren’t necessarily abused and ostracized. We decided to do this without repeating and correcting the misconceptions but instead presenting and illustrating state-of-the-art interpretations of the topic. We also decided not to make explicit connections to the present, which allowed the visitor to experience a distant (in time, not space) culture populated by "cripples" and "raving maniacs", but without a trace of modern medical and social interpretations. Any connection to own experiences and similarities to the present were left to the visitor. This is why, also, the concept "disability" did not play a part in the exhibition, except for a brief introduction where we explained that the exhibition does without that term. However, in the texts in simple German we provided, the term was used, as we were unable to agree on another designation that was easily understandable. As mentioned, the exhibition wasn’t chronologically structured, but we needed to structure it somehow to make it comprehensible.

We immediately decided against arranging it according to types of "disability", not only because this would go against the perspective outlined above, but also since this kind of categorizations doesn’t fit the sources we presented. Instead, we used the topics "Mobility and Activity", "Care and Aid", "Back-Breaking Work – Illness and Health", "Miracle Cures and Miraculous Bodies", and "Admiring – Beholding – Concealing – Looking Away". This followed the structure of the "Homo debilis" project.

These themes were well suited to be translated to symbolic spaces that were important for pre-modern lifeworlds, especially relating to embodied difference: the bed, the street, the shrine, and the cabinet of wonders.
The exhibition designers were able to partially recreate a shrine and a cabinet of wonders on site. In the shrine, the visitors were confronted with the great significance of religion in the pre-modern worldview, and in the cabinet of wonders, the gaze on the conspicuous body and reactions towards "different" people were highlighted. The "bed"-section dealt with caring and nursing. The largest section was "the street", where the public sphere, labour, and physical aids were addressed.
Although the exhibition couldn’t go on the road, it did result in a number of publications that makes the contents and concept available to a wider audience. It was important to us to collect our experiences and make not only the contents, but the practical know-how we accumulated publicly available. We did this in the volume "Wissenschaft für Alle – in Ausstellungen barrierefrei präsentieren" [Science for all – How to make accessible exhibitions, edited by Cordula Nolte and Sonja Kinzler, Kiel 2012],  a making-of story and a handbook for accessible exhibitions. It details the whole process working with LeibEigenschaften, from planning to the end evaluation. The book includes viewpoints from several experts, giving their perspectives on different aspects of accessibility: mobility, hearing, vision, and comprehension. They offered many insights that are hopefully valuable for future accessible shows.

Through this project came the realization that creating an accessible exhibition lets you learn a lot about curating. It trains you in opening different ways to access the contents. Curators should be aware of this from early on in the process and communicate it to the funding institutions: creating accessible exhibitions doesn’t mean spending a lot of money on a small minority of visitors. While making exhibitions available to everyone is important and in the end a question of democracy,  dismantling barriers benefits everyone.

For further reading, see also:

  • Cordula Nolte, Sonja Kinzler (Eds): LeibEigenschaften. Der „beschädigte“ Körper im Blick der Vormoderne, Bremen 2012
  • Sonja Kinzler: ”Wissenschaftstransfer in eine barrierefreie Ausstellung. Anmerkungen zur inhaltlichen Konzeption der Ausstellung LeibEigenschaften - Der ‚beschädigte‘ Körper im Blick der Vormoderne”, in: Cordula Nolte (Ed.): Phänomene der „Behinderung“ im Alltag. Bausteine zu einer Disability History der Vormoderne, Korb: Dydimos 2013, 25-36
Recommended Citation
Sonja Kinzler (2016): Making of an accessible exhibition on Disability History. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 13.

The title is a play with the German word for serfdom, „Leibeigenschaft“, which can be divided in „Leib“, body, and „Eigenschaft“, property in the sense of characteristic.