Objects in focus
Disability and the British Museum collection

From an ancient Egyptian prosthetic to 19th-century artworks through to a modern badge, here’s a small selection of objects that have been researched by volunteers and staff recently as part of a wider project to uncover histories of disability in the collection.

Isabelle Lawrence, a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student based at the Museum and in collaboration with the University of Leicester, introduces the project:

Throughout the ongoing pandemic, I have had the pleasure of working remotely with students from two universities, who have each done a wonderful job of uncovering objects relating to disability in the collection, as part of the Interpretation Team’s Student placement programme. Over the course of these difficult months, they have successfully navigated our online database, identifying objects that can be used to explore the experiences of D/deaf, disabled and neurodiverse people throughout history.

This has been difficult, not least because the history of disability is often ‘hidden’ within museum databases. The connections that objects have to disability themes may not be made clear in existing catalogue records, and several of the objects are described using medicalised, outdated, and sometimes problematic language that we now feel uncomfortable with.

Although this preliminary research is simply the tip of the iceberg (the British Museum collection houses over 8,000,000 objects!), the work that has been done is a wonderful starting point for future research seeking to improve the way disability and neurodiversity is represented in the Museum.

During 2021, a variety of research projects about disability histories within the collection will be kick-started, including my own fieldwork for my PhD. Our intention is that this research will grow and help inform future displays, exhibitions and public events. Here we share some highlights from what we found over the last few months.

Emma Brown, University of Sussex

Cartonnage Big toe, Egpyt, before 600 BC

A prosthetic big toe and adjoining supporting material made from light brown cartonnage. There is a hollow for a fake toenail to be inserted.
Worn over 2,600 years ago in ancient Egypt, this prosthetic big toe shows signs of use. It would have assisted the wearer with balance, but also had an aesthetic purpose, and even has a place for a fake toenail to be inserted.

This prosthesis is in the shape of the big toe of the right foot, and has a number of holes around the edge through which it could be sewn onto something else (perhaps a sock or a sandal strap). It is made of cartonnage –a material composed of layers of linen mixed with animal glue and gesso, also used to make mummy cases and masks.

At first glance this prosthetic toe didn’t appear very old, but I was amazed and delighted to learn that this Egyptian prosthetic was made nearly 3,000 years ago. I’m particularly interested in this object not only for its functional use, but also for its aesthetic appeal, which gives us an insight into the life and status of the wearer. Functionally, the prosthetic toe provided balance for its wearer.

Aesthetically, the toe was tailored to its wearer, even including a place for a fake toenail to complete the look. It also shows signs of being worn fairly often, implying that the wearer seemed happy with their prosthetic.

Barbara Gomes-Artilheiro, University of Sussex

Two studies for the Conversion of St Paul, around 1657–58, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665)

Two pen drawings of a Biblical scene showing people and horses. The drawing on the left is more heavily worked and the one on the right is lighter. On the right you can see the jagged lines potentially caused by the artist's tremors.
These drawings by French artist Nicolas Poussin potentially show the impact syphilis and its associated tremors had on the artist’s work.

Nicolas Poussin was a French Baroque painter. He spent most of his life in Rome, specialising in history paintings. It is said that Poussin fell ill in 1630 and recovered, however, his health declined once again in 1650, at which point tremors become visible in his drawings – as is the case here. It is believed the artist had syphilis and refused to get treatment for his illness.

When I first started this project, I wasn’t quite sure where to begin my research, because I had never really been involved in this kind of work and wasn’t very familiar with the subject either. After trying a few different keywords in the search bar of Collection online, and exploring them, this was one of the first works that captivated me.

Here, we see evidence of an artist who had an illness, or possibly age-related impairment, that clearly affected his drawing and painting. It’s such a captivating piece because we get a glimpse of Poussin’s experience of illness through his artwork.

Gabriel Seck, University of Leicester

Print of Peter and John at the gate of the temple, around 1629–30, by Rembrandt (1606–69)

An etching showing a Biblical scene of Saint Peter healing a man who sits outside a temple's gates. Peter and John stand, wearing loose robes while the man sits on the floor, with crutches laid out in front.
This etching shows Saint Peter and Saint John performing a miracle.

Made by Rembrandt in the 17th century, this print shows the Biblical scene of Peter’s miraculous healing of a man who sits outside a temple’s gates. The description of this work uses language drawn from the translation of a Bible passage (King James Bible, Acts 3). This passage describes the man as a ‘cripple’, a term which today is regarded as old-fashioned and offensive as it has often been used in a derogatory and oppressive manner. As part of my research I have been logging potentially problematic or outdated language found on the Collection online database.

A common theme throughout disabled history, is the idea of ‘the cure’.

This etching by Rembrandt follows common depictions in Christian artwork, where a powerful divine or holy figure takes ‘pity’ on a disabled person and ‘cures’ them. These images and ideas have shaped modern attitudes to disabled people.

The idea of the cure in contemporary culture is controversial and debated in the disabled community, as many find the idea that they need to be ‘cured’ offensive. Some, however, who suffer from chronic pain for example, may very much wish for a cure. It is important to consider the illness identity of the person. For my own illness identity, a cure is wanted desperately by many, but this is not applicable to everyone with the same disease.

Though the idea of the ‘cure’ or ‘healing’ that Rembrandt depicts makes some people uneasy and uncomfortable today, it is important not to erase these types of works from disabled history. It is important to critique works like this and not hide the oppression (or the victories) from the community – this way we can show how far my community has come, while also showing where we came from.

Isabelle Lawrence, CDP student, British Museum

Print and drawing of The Old Commodore, around 1824–33, by William Fairland (fl. 1828–1935), and George Scharf (1788–1860)

Two images of the 'Old Commodore of Tottenham Court Road'. A man wearing a long coat holds out a top hat, with in the other holds a broom. He is wearing a prosthetic right leg.
Two depictions of the Old Commodore of Tottenham Court Road, with a brush and holding out a hat for money. Tottenham Court Road is a main road in central London very close to the Museum. On the left, a print by William Fairland, and on the right a drawing by George Scharf.

I have chosen this print of a man dubbed The Old Commodore of Tottenham Court Road. The print depicts a black man wearing a prosthetic leg, holding his top hat in front of his chest and resting his other hand on a broom handle. Although another image of the same man, this time a drawing by George Scharf in 1835, can also be found in the collection, our collections database holds very little information on who the Old Commodore was or about his experience. This is something I am keen to address.

This print has the potential to spark new avenues of future research. For example, the Old Commodore appears to be a crossing sweeper (whose role was to sweep refuse from the streets of London) and may be holding out his hat as a means of asking for money. This makes this print one of many images in the collection of (often unnamed) impaired men and women in similar, low paid occupations or impoverished situations. However, this man is given a title which sets him apart. Images like this often capitalised on the local fame of individuals whose physical differences were promoted as spectacles or curiosities. A Commodore is a high-ranking Officer in the Royal Navy, perhaps indicating that the man in this print had a sea-faring past that was known to those who dubbed him (for whatever reason) the Old Commodore.

It is important to remember that the Old Commodore was living in a time of great social change. The Slave Trade Act 1807 prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire, but slavery remained legal throughout most of the Empire until the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. This was also a time when the British Empire was expanding, affecting the distribution of power within colonised countries and the growth of racism and racial stereotypes.

The questions that this print raises are endless. Who was the Old Commodore? How did colonialism, imperialism and constructions of race and social class shape his life and what does this tell us about the British Empire? How did his impairment affect his life? How much control did he have over the way he was represented, and what did the producers of this image hope to achieve? How would this image have been interpreted to those examining (or staring) at it, and why it was eventually collected by the British Museum? What could this image mean for audiences today, who have been shaped by the civil rights movements of the 20th and 21st centuries?

Many of these questions require further research – and some may be unanswerable, but it is important that they are asked. In 2021 a series of collaborative workshops will explore the histories of some of these objects, and this object is therefore a perfect example of the way in which the work of each of the students could act as a springboard for future research.

Jessica Starns, Volunteer Coordinator, British Museum

Thomas the Tank Engine Badge, 2003

This Thomas the Tank Engine pin badge is part of the Coins and Medals collection, and can help demonstrate how language and attitudes around autism have changed. On the card just below the pin badge is an old logo for the National Autistic Society, which shows a drawing of a child crying within a jigsaw puzzle piece. This old logo used in the early 2000s might suggest that autistic people are a puzzle that needs to be solved, that they are on their own and are isolated from the rest of society.

On the back of the card there’s text about autism and the charity. The language is now outdated and isn’t how the National Autistic Society would describe autism today. They used person-first language (‘with autism’) rather than identity first language (‘autistic person’). In the 17 years since this badge was created our understanding of autism has changed significantly as autistic people have had greater opportunity to share their experiences.

In 2001 the National Autistic Society researched whether autistic children have a stronger connection to Thomas the Tank Engine than other children’s characters. This may be why, in 2003, they created this badge to raise funds for the charity. In 2007 the Society published a survey on how Thomas & Friends support the education of autistic children to learn emotions, numbers, words and colours. The survey found that facial expressions of Thomas characters are easier to read and were enjoyed because the narrator clearly explains the storyline. In 2017 Thomas & Friends introduced their first identifying autistic character – Theo – in the film Thomas & Friends: Journey Beyond Sodor.

I selected this object as I am neurodivergent and as a child liked Thomas the Tank Engine. I was lucky to live near a heritage railway in Sussex which had an old steam train designed to look like Thomas, which I used to visit regularly with my family. I feel this object is important in showing how language and people’s perception of autism is changing positively.

Fiona Slater, Equality and Diversity Manager, British Museum

Rescue, 2018, by Mohammad Barrangi (b. 1988)

A print showing a woman being partially swallowed by a huge fish. She raises her right hand and has a blank expression. There are lines of text above.
Mohammed Barrangi’s work is informed by his lived experience of exile and disability. The woman’s face in this work is that of the artist’s mother.

The British Museum continues to acquire new objects and artworks for the collection. Last year a work by Iranian artist Mohammad Barrangi was acquired by the Middle East Department, and is included in a new publication Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa (exhibition coming 2021). Barrangi’s work draws from the aesthetic of Persian miniature painting, and is informed by his lived experience of exile and disability. As he highlights in his artist statement on the Museum website:

As a disabled artist, I like to show images of people who are missing arms or other limbs, or have another disability, and show them in a new way. I aim to depict women who I admire or who are inspirational to me. I often use images of my mother for instance, exiled Iranian queens or just friends who have meant a lot to me. My work often focuses on journeys and travelling. Sometimes I will also combine elements from classical Western paintings with Eastern stories or imagery.

I have met and worked with Mohammad Barrangi so was delighted to hear the Museum had acquired his work for the collection. I love his unusual use of collage and Iranian brushwork, which often transforms his contemporaries into historic creatures of myth and legend.

Have you found an object in the collection which you think has a link to disability history or narratives? If so, please get in touch via the contact details below! We would love to add your contributions to our growing audit of objects and artworks.

And if you’re interested in searching the collection to see what you can find, you can get started using our Collection online here. We have a handy how-to guide too.

Visit our events pages to find more information on accessible events running online soon.

In Spring 2021 we will be hosting a series of consultation sessions and workshops about researching disability in the collection. If you are interested in getting involved contact us at access@britishmuseum.org or on +44 (0)20 7323 8971 (opening hours Mondays – Fridays, 9.00–17.00). Expressions of interest from people who identify as disabled or neurodiverse are particularly welcomed.