Disability History, disabled people in the Heritage sector, and emotionally demanding research
by Laura Noakes
Despite being a disabled museum professional, I (embarrassingly) haven’t done much research into disability history so far in my career. I have Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder (HSD), which for me means that my joints sometimes dislocate, and I have chronic pain most of the time. My HSD is often invisible - looking at me, you wouldn’t know I’m disabled - but sometimes I use handy mobility aids, or walk slowly and with a limp.
However, it was my experiences as a disabled person that led to The Devil’s Porridge Museum’s new disability history project. The Devil’s Porridge Museum (I know, a very unique name!) tells the history of HM Factory Gretna, the largest munitions factory in the world when it was built during the First World War. When I first started my job, the museum’s focus was on researching the people who worked at HM Factory Gretna. As we uncovered the untold history of the people behind the factory, I realised that many of these stories had a common theme: disability.
Many of the workers at Gretna arrived at the factory because they had been invalided out of the armed forces. For others, working with the toxic chemicals used to make cordite led to life-long chronic illnesses. The combination of these factors meant that Gretna was a meeting place for disabled people during World War One. I don’t think I would have been as quick to identify that theme had I not had the lived experience of disability. However, I was also acutely aware that I knew little - if anything - about the field of disability history and its methodical approaches. As soon as the project was confirmed, I dipped my toe into some recommended reading in an effort to familiarise myself with the subject matter.
Almost immediately, I was overwhelmed. Although, not surprisingly, much of the academic discourses on disability history post-1918 centres on returning soldiers and not munition workers, I was struck by how much I related to the experiences of these men. One quote in particular stood out to me—a soldier talking about how he spent his weekends resting in order to get through a week at work. (1) This mirrored my own struggles with my disability: having to schedule in rest days and organise my free time meticulously so that me and my dodgy joints didn’t get in the way of my professional life. I was quite shocked by just how struck I was by this—maybe that was the reason why I had never researched disability history before. It was a feeling of kinship, of understanding the almighty effort of a disabled person who wants to fit in and succeed in an often-inaccessible world.
Over 100 years on from that disabled soldier’s reflection of his experiences, and disabled people are still struggling with attaining a work life balance. I was terrified about the transition between my flexible PhD work (working when I felt able to, mostly remotely) to working a 9-5 in a museum five days a week. However, working for the Porridge has been wonderful. My colleagues and the trustees have been unfailingly supportive: writing risk assessments to make the building more accessible, not blinking an eye when I turn up in a knee brace. I work from home one day a week, allowing me to manage my pain much more effectively, which has, in turn, allowed me to move away from micromanaging my weekends.
That’s why the ‘history’ part of this disability project is only a fragment of our overall aims. Like in many sectors, heritage and museums have a dearth of disabled workers. But bringing disabled voices to the fore - in curating, in research and in education and outreach - is a crucial part of making museum services more diverse, and that in turn makes diverse audiences feel more welcomed.
So, as I delve more deeply into the field of disability history, I have found certain aspects emotionally demanding - whether it be from quotes I relate to, or from anger at the discrimination and hurdles disabled people face - this is tempered by the knowledge that this history is vitally important. Not only for the recovery of the lives of disabled people in the past, but also for the advancement of disabled people today.
Deborah Cohen, The War Came Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939, (University of California Press, 2001) p. 112.
Dr. Laura Noakes is the Research Officer at The Devil's Porridge Museum in Eastriggs, Scotland. She is currently working on a project to research the disability history of HM Factory Gretna, a WW1 munitions factory. In 2021 she completed her PhD in legal history at the Open University, looking at two early women barristers. She lives in Carlisle with her fiancé and her cat, Scout