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A Day at the Museum: Disability Activism and Things to Remember

Christine Brown, Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario


In April 2008, an exhibit titled "Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember" opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It originated in a seminar taught in the School of Disability Studies at Toronto's Ryerson University, and was co-curated by the course's three instructors.

It is safe to say that this exhibit is the first of its kind in Canada. As the museum catalogue written for the exhibit suggests, the project was mounted in the spirit of "dislodging ourselves from dominant interpretive frames of medicine, technology and mean-spirited economics."

The objects which make up the thirteen installations in the exhibit range from the intensely personal to the highly public. One is the death certificate of a murdered infant girl, in an installation created by her mother. At the other end of the spectrum is the Canadian flag which flew atop Parliament Hill many years ago on the day a piece of significant disability rights legislation was passed. The flag had been presented to the activist (who subsequently created the installation) whose organization was instrumental in advocating for the legislation.

This paper examines the making of this exhibit, as these various objects underwent their necessary transformation from things invested with personal significance to formally displayed artefacts for public - and of course political - consumption. Particular emphasis is placed in this analysis on the workings of the complex feedback loop which connects public events, museums, the academy, and the on-the-ground world of disability rights activism.

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