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.