Riverside Open UK's First Dedicated Wheelchair Display
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Riverside Open UK's First Dedicated Wheelchair Display




Riverside Museum, Scotland’s Museum of Travel and Transport, has opened a new, trailblazing display, focusing on the technological advancement of the wheelchair.  Co-curated with a diverse group of users, the exhibit concentrates on ‘ordinary’ wheelchairs as a mode of transport and the impact design improvements have had on users, from a usability and social perception perspective. 


The majority of museums in the UK that feature wheelchairs exhibit them as single objects.  They are often viewed as abstract works of art or a representation of a political theme.  Alternatively, where a chair is displayed in its own right it is usually part of a wider display or featured because it is a very unusual or expensive design. 


Riverside Museum recruited a group of wheelchair users to co-curate the display to ensure it accurately reflected the wheelchairs’ impact on those who use them.  Together they selected four chairs, which span almost 100 years in time and technological development, chosen from twenty-four wheelchair related objects in Glasgow Museums’ Collection.  The group chose schools as the key target audience, developed the key theme, ‘the chair doesn’t define the person’, wrote panel text and participated in a film, which forms a key part of the display. 


Alex Papanikolaou, a wheelchair user who co-curated the display, said: “Museums are usually a place people go to learn about the past.  I think Riverside is leading the way in showcasing modern displays.  It has engaged the community of Glasgow and made a great effort to not only find out about the history of mobility and wheelchairs, but also to give people a real view of what it's like to be a wheelchair user today.  This is an excellent initiative and has produced a display that is both a history lesson and an insight into life from a disabled user's point of view, I think many people will be able to relate to it and learn from it.  I have really enjoyed working with the Riverside team and I’m delighted to see the display open for others to enjoy.”  


Councillor Archie Graham, Chair of Glasgow Life, explained: “We receive a great deal of positive feedback about our regular display changes at Riverside.  Having the option to showcase wheelchairs as a mode of transport gave us the opportunity to explore a previously under-researched area and showcase less-frequently displayed objects.  We couldn’t have done it without the wheelchair users, they’ve been fantastic.  The group spoke about how children are often more open to people with different mobility needs, because their awareness of such things is better now than it was in the past.  I hope that the wheelchair display will act as a catalyst for conversation and contribute to that understanding.” 


The display is not a history of wheelchairs, rather it tells the story of several wheelchair users, illustrating how every user is unique and so is the way they use their chair.  Most people have little experience of wheelchairs and many view them with apprehension, therefore the input of the user group was crucial.


The first wheelchair was made by J Foot and Sons Ltd, London from the early 1900s.  It is the earliest chair on display and is typical of those used by WW1 veterans.  At that time wheelchairs were a symbol of failure, failure to ‘fix’ the patient or the failure of the patient to do his or her duty to use prosthetics.  It was designed with the assumption that the user would be house-bound and so resembles a piece of furniture.  It contrasts sharply to the three more modern chairs which complete the display. 


The second chair was designed for use in developing countries.  It is extremely robust and able to cope with potholes and rough rocky ground.  It is entirely different to the WW1 chair, designed for maximum empowerment and independence.  The final is used by Britain's Number 1 wheelchair tennis player Gordon Reid.  Even though he used this chair for sports the decision was made to emphasise the fact that most users are ‘ordinary’ people, and although Gordon is an athlete he is also a regular guy.


For the schools audience it was deemed important to convey a child’s perspective, someone who has always used a wheelchair.  The display encourages young people to think of those who can’t imagine life not in a chair and the importance of design.  It explores how just as well-designed aids, like glasses or walking boots, can, if well made, be almost forgotten about, so should a wheelchair, provided the environment and attitude of others allows them to do so.


The wheelchair display is now open at Riverside Museum, situated between the Albion bus and Tram No. 1089 on the ground floor.  For more information see www.glasgowmuseums.com



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