Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library based in London, which is part of Wellcome Trust, a global charitable organisation which supports research around health. Orla O’Donnell, Visitor Experience Manager at Wellcome Collection provides an insight into some of their work with disabled artists and audiences.

Woman with his arms in the air

Heart n Soul’s Chat Up event at Wellcome Collection. Photograph: Christopher Andreou

In 2017, Wellcome Collection celebrated its 10th anniversary. As we embark on our adolescent years, it seems fitting to reflect on what we have achieved so far and explore our plans for the future.

While diversity and inclusion has always been important to us, this year we made an even more significant commitment. Our new Strategic Direction for Access, Diversity & Inclusion builds on the work of teams across the organisation and aims to embed Access, Diversity and Inclusion into every aspect of what we do. The document highlights priority areas where we hope to see measurable improvements over the next five years – for example, to ensure that neurodiverse, D/deaf and disabled people can engage fully.

But what is so different or indeed important about this strategy for the organisation? Well, it signals strategic institutional buy-in and ensures that colleagues at all levels understand inclusive practice and its benefits. This is important because without support at every level, it would be impossible to embed real and meaningful change.

The strategy builds on work that we’ve been doing for years, but aims to give all staff a sense of empowerment to talk openly about our aims. A key aspect of our approach will be learning from others and sharing these learnings both within the organisation and with the wider community. It’s impossible (and dull!) to list everything we’ve done so far, so I’ve highlighted a few pieces that illustrate the way we want to continue to move forward. 

Inclusive tours

Speech to text tour

Speech to text tour of Sexology, Wellcome Collection. Photograph: Wellcome Collection

Wellcome Collection’s accessible programme of events and tours has evolved over the years. As a result of requests to have tours led by Deaf guides, we now run Deaf-led British Sign Language tours. These have proven very popular and something we hope to grow.

Our Speech to Text tours, which provide live subtitles on handheld devices, have been running for over six years now. Like our regular programme of Audio Described events, these tours are for blind and visually impaired visitors. They are led and created by our talented Visitor Experience Assistant. The Visitor Experience team have always played a central role in Access and Inclusion, and I hope to encourage support for this as our strategy evolves.

Not all of our visitors interact with the venues, so inclusion on our digital platform is also important. Check out some of our Stories. The series In My Own Words is a particular favourite of mine – it’s a platform for disabled people, who share their lived experiences of health.

Working with artists with lived experience of disability

Woman doing a painting shot from above

In my Own Words. Photograph: Thomas S.G. Farnetti/ Wellcome Collection

Our Live Programme team have commissioned and worked with a diverse range of artists with lived experience of disability. 2017’s The Sick of the Fringe, held across four London venues, was home to the Wellcome commission Austerity Cu ts. The project allowed an anonymous disabled artist to impactfully explore the capability assessment process in their own words. To me, this work was so important because it gave the disabled person a central voice and challenged our concept ‘difference’. This is all too important for a museum and library that is rooted in the very concept of ‘health’.

Another favourite was our collaboration with Candoco, to produce a Friday Late Spectacular exploring what it means to display and to be on display. It was an evening of intimate encounters where Candoco Dance Company’s disabled and non-disabled dancers performed and explored the act of revealing and exposure. While all of these temporary projects give a voice to these missing narratives, our next challenge is to embed them into our permanent displays.

Our collaboration with the University of Leicester aims to embed the social model of disability into a permeant exhibition. The project, entitled Disorder, Dissent and Disruption, builds on recent research carried out by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries. It explores how we can ‘disrupt’ our assumptions by bringing in new voices and a new approach. Although we’re in the early stages, it’s exciting to see our collection through different eyes and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

Inclusive exhibition design

It’s important that a well as addressing the content that we look at the physical space, since 2016 our exhibition team have been developing an inclusive approach to exhibition making. This includes guidelines for inclusive design development, visitor consultation at key design and evaluation stages. Guidelines for Inclusive Exhibition Design and User Consultation, developed in collaboration with the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design will be published online in Spring 2019.

Heart n Soul at the Hub

Woman holding a cushioned object

Heart n Soul’s Chat Up event at Wellcome Collection. Photograph: Christopher Andreou

In October we welcomed the new residents of The Hub, Wellcome’s transdisciplinary research space. Creative arts charity Heart n Soul describe themselves as an organisation that “believe in the talents and power of people with learning disabilities”. They put people with learning disabilities at the heart of everything they do and their research project at Wellcome Collection is no different. The project will be led by a team of people with and without learning disabilities and autism. Throughout their two-year residency, the group will explore ideas like human value, difference and love from the viewpoint of people with learning disabilities and autism.

Heart n Soul marked their 30th birthday last year by creating The Big 30 Archive, a collection of newly recorded interviews and photographs of people with and without learning disabilities, accompanied by Heart n Soul archive material. We hope that the digital archive will soon become part of our collection and available to explore in the library.

Heart n Soul’s research project at The Hub is still very much in development, but their impact has already been felt. Heart n Soul have hosted three public events at the Collection so far and their next one is a discussion and performance with Heart n Soul artist Lizzie Emeh on Thursday 28 February 2019.  I’m excited to see what Heart n Soul have in store over the next two years, and how this will, in turn, inform the work of Wellcome Collection.

Wellcome Funding

Wellcome Trust supports artists and arts organisations to explore science and health through the work they create, the way they share their ideas, and the collaborators they work with. At Wellcome, we believe that only with a diversity of great ideas can we improve health for everyone. We’ve committed £12.5 million over the next five years to broaden the diversity of people we fund, engage with and employ.

No one should face barriers when applying for Wellcome funding, and we’re committed to making sure that our application process is accessible to everyone. We can offer different types of support for disabled people, or people who have a chronic health condition. For example, we can offer support in completing application forms (e.g. by paying for a support worker), supply application forms and funding in accessible formats, or provide help for attending interviews (e.g. by funding a British Sign Language interpreter).  

We’re also working with partners like Business Disability Forum, Chronically Academic and the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) to consider how we support those who are disabled and/or live with chronic health conditions. 

Finally, our partnership with Unlimited is exploring the resonance of our collections with disabled artists working beyond our venue. In 2019 we’ll co-commission two artists to develop new work with arts partners elsewhere in the UK, exploring new ways to collaborate with the wider arts sector.

There’s more information on these web pages: