Blog Post #78: Interview with Kyle Lewis Jordan of Curating for Change

Our blogs posts in February and March feature public scholars working across various media who are pushing for creative, inclusive, and ethical means of representing the ancient world. All of these individuals will be presenting at our upcoming colloquium, “Presenting the Past: Responsible Engagement and Ancient Mediterranean History”. This colloquium asks how we as educators inside and outside the academy can more effectively participate in public discourse about the ancient Mediterranean. How do we engage in responsible public scholarship that is more inclusive of past diversity and modern audiences? We’re excited to feature the work of several public scholars who are creating innovative and compassionate answers to this question.

First of all, we’re interested in knowing more about your work as a researcher and curator. What are your main research interests and how do these relate to your work as curator?

My core research interest is studying disability in antiquity, with a particular focus on disability in ancient Egypt due to my academic background in Egyptology. While a lot of this work broadly constitutes looking at and interpreting evidences for disability in the ancient past – be that through evidence in human remains or depictions in art and literature – I’m also interested in drawing connections between these lived peoples and thinking about how their embodiments were not only perceived by others, but how it shaped their lived experiences and their relationships to the world around them.

Since September 2022, I’ve been working at the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers Museums in Oxford as their Curating for Change Fellow, where the main focus of my role is to curate disability histories held within their collections. Alongside co-producers from the local disabled community, my aim and hope is to curate a number of interventions both within the galleries and online to demonstrate that disability was and is a universal human experience that has both an active and passive effect for individuals, but also the societies in which they lived and still actively live in today.

How have museums perpetuated problematic narratives about the body?

Museums have perpetuated harmful narratives about the body in two ways: firstly by their historic and continued treatment of human remains as objects, and secondly by the aesthetic presentation of the human form in museum archaeological and art collections. 

A painting of a Scholar And/or Physician in orange waistcoat and white stockings carrying a Cane Peering At an Egyptian Mummy Through a Pair of Eyeglasses; a jug and sphinx sculpture are situated below
A Scholar And/or Physician Carrying a Cane Peering At an Egyptian Mummy Through a Pair of Eyeglasses; Wellcome Collection;

The treatment of human remains as an object, as something to be extracted and mined for set information – always at the discretion of the one defining what they sought to find – has direct connections to the development of pseudoscientific ideas around race, the body and eugenics. While most modern museum displays may not explicitly espouse these ideas any more, that legacy is still evident in the pathologization of remains demonstrating an impairment or disease, with many still utilized for morbid curiosity over any actual empathetic understanding. The language choice of labels and catalogue entries – choosing to ascribe “deformity”, “suffering” and “abnormality” before personhood – obscures any real way of appreciating how these people may have actually experienced their lives.

When I refer to the aesthetic presentation of the human form in museum collections, I mean how curatorial choices and sensibilities have led to an inherent preference for certain kinds of material, which in turn reinforces incorrect notions of the past. When we ascribe “ideal forms” to the images of Egyptian kings, Roman emperors and Greek heroes – all in their own ways meant to be larger-than-life and unattainable to your average person, something the audiences of their day would have understood – we inadvertently leave the contemporary audience thinking that this was the extent of the world that there was, rather than it simply being a world that was imagined. Left uncorrected and unchallenged, these ideas are often seized upon to promote rather warped notions of the ancient past to promote harmful ideologies here in the present. 

In what ways does your research and museum work challenge these narratives? 

My work challenges these narratives by seeking to understand the broader scope of an individual’s embodiment and the role that plays in broader interactions between one another. Not one of us today is homogenous: our differing lived experiences of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, social class, disability, work, migration, conflict and so much more – will have differing effects on our bodies and minds as we continually develop over the course of our lifetimes. As we afford this complexity to ourselves, so too we must afford it to people in the past. One case study I carried out was that of Geheset, an Egyptian noblewoman from the 18th century BCE who is possibly one of our earliest known cases of cerebral palsy in the ancient world.   

As part of my ongoing Curating for Change Curatorial Fellowship, my hope is that – in partnership with local disabled people – we can create spaces for dialogue within the collections of the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museum, allowing not only disabled people to show the diverse perspectives they can bring but also the inner complexity of the collections themselves. Through doing so I hope to demonstrate how the experience of disability has been integral, and in no way an “other”, to the human story.  

Image of three ivory figurines of women with dwarfism from the Hierakonpolis Main Deposit from Predynastic Egypt, which currently reside at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford 
Image of three ivory figurines of women with dwarfism from the Hierakonpolis Main Deposit from Predynastic Egypt, which currently reside at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford 

How would you like to see museums change in their missions and representation of human history going forward?

There are not enough words in this blog post to possibly go into this – feel free to ask me for an extended answer at the Presenting the Past Colloquium! – but I’ll say this: Museums, in my mind, have an enormous potential to be spaces that serve as engines for social change and continuing transformations. For the championing of public health and to give space for communities to connect, heal and grow. 

For that to become a reality, we must engage earnestly in reconciliation, restitution and repatriation. A duty to care for objects may ensure the ever changing present, but only a duty to care for humanity enriches the possible futures. 

What are some of the most rewarding activities that come from working in and with museums?

Personally for me it’s been seeing the look on someone’s face – be they a member of the public, volunteer or staff – when after telling them about my research, they realise the things that they’ve been experiencing might count as a disability, and that these experiences have been part of the human story since the beginning. That they too are a part of a rich story where they once didn’t feel they had any meaningful role to play. The shock, quickly followed by a burst of excitement, then a long moment of quiet contemplation. It’s beautiful to behold, and I live for every moment of it. 

Further Resources: – My Twitter Account is where you’re going to find all my thoughts, updates and announcements regarding my current work. Stay tuned for impending updates on academic publications coming later in the year! – Curating for Change’s website, where you can learn more about the project as a whole and can keep up to date about its progress. They also have their own Twitter: @Curating4Change 

“We are not the Other; We are Universal: Disability, Culture and Society” – A blog post which I wrote back during the course of the COVID pandemic which gives you a bit more of a flavour of my ethos and perspective. 

Previous talks: 

Disability in Ancient Egypt: The Case of Geheset

Disability in Ancient Egyptian Myth and Literature

Transitions and Transformations: The Body and Disability in Ancient Egypt

Kyle Lewis Jordan

Kyle Lewis Jordan is an early career scholar and curatorial fellow working for the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK as part of the Curating for Change Programme. He studied his MA in the Archaeology and Heritage of Egypt and the Middle East at University College London, where he wrote his thesis on the role and significance of disability in early court society in Egypt. Recognised as a specialist in the study of disability in antiquity, Kyle is passionate about broadening the scope of these studies, the accessibility of the field and bringing Disability Studies into dialogue with Archaeology.

Kyle was born with Cerebral Palsy and uses a manual wheelchair. From the age of six he dreamt of being an Egyptologist, and from the age of ten his ambition was (and continues to be) to one day become the Director of the British Museum. To study his MA, Kyle was awarded the Snowdon Master’s Scholarship, in recognition of his qualities as a disabled leader. 

Published by Peopling the Past

A Digital Humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and the people who study them.

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