John Langdon Down’s Normansfield : stories from the archives and their contributions to heritage

Hayward, Sarah Elizabeth (2023) John Langdon Down’s Normansfield : stories from the archives and their contributions to heritage. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


The pursuit of social acceptance and integration, equal rights, and self-advocacy, is an ongoing struggle for people with a learning disability. An important part of this endeavour is the understanding – and ownership – of the history of learning disability. One of the pathways to achieving this is through heritage: the interpretation and (re)presentation of history to a contemporary audience. This archives-based research project explores the early years of Normansfield Hospital, founded in 1868 by John Langdon Down (1828-1896), one of the first institutions dedicated to the understanding, education, and care, of people with a learning disability. The extensive Normansfield Archive Collection is now held at the London Metropolitan Archives, and Normansfield's largest surviving original has become home to the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability. The project is a multidisciplinary one, and it encompasses the fields of cultural heritage and archives, museum studies and museum interpretation, and the history of people with a learning disability. Through my engagement with the Normansfield Archive Collection, the thesis probes issues around archival research. These include addressing problematic historical language; negotiating presences and absences; giving voice to the voiceless; inclusivity in theory and in practice; creating narratives; and exploring different approaches to museological interpretation of archive material. The project's outcomes comprise a written thesis and three creative pieces. These latter serve as prototype experiments in interpretations strategies; a video presentation which tells Lucy's story; a six stop audio guide and booklet; and the design for an exhibition entitled The Difficult Heritage of Learning Disability. The thesis addresses the historical complexities and contemporary issues of researching, interpreting, and (re)presenting the history of people with a learning disability; and explores some of the ethical considerations involved. It also questions the positionality of this history in relation to ‘Difficult’ Heritage. The project contributes new material, it encourages fresh discourse, and it shines new light upon this critical - yet largely marginalised and underrepresented - subject.

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