Emancipating invisibilized populations through design

1. What is an invisiblized population?

Women, the non-Caucasian, the disabled, the non-heterosexual and the non-English speaking have all been excluded from knowledge production at some time and all of these reasons for exclusion can become lenses for emancipatory research. (Noel, 2016) These populations share commonalities when accessing healthcare including communication barriers, difficulties accessing past medical records and the complexity of health needs that confront the practitioner providing health care. These issues and additional systemic barriers that prevent the delivery of optimal health care to such groups. (Brolan, Ware et al 2011)

1.1 Health outcomes of invisibilization

Economic forces, policies that shape our criminal justice system, and available housing all shape population health. And yet they seldom feature in the public conversation about health, which is dominated by medical approaches and cures. (Galea, Vaughan, 2018) Economic policies, the criminal justice system, and housing are all — however invisible — drivers of population health. Efforts to improve these are essential on a foundational level as medicine is on the molecular mechanisms of disease. The current policies and distribution of resources are focussed so much more on medical approaches and cures than in the causes of poor health suggests that we are not doing as well as we should be at making all the causes of health visible.

2. Emancipatory Research

Emancipatory research is a research perspective of producing knowledge that can be of benefit to disadvantaged people. It is an umbrella term that can include many streams of critical theory based research such as feminist, disability, race and gender theory. (Noel, 2016) One of the key assumptions in emancipatory research is that there are multiple realities, and that research is not only created by the ‘dominant or elite researcher’.(Groat and Wang 2001) Given the development of branches of design research such as inclusive design, participatory design and design for social innovation, where the designer interacts with and designs with and for people who may be marginalized for reasons of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, economic background etc., an early exposure to emancipatory research is valuable as a design researcher to recognise the impact of one’s own privilege on their practice and develop research interventions that are sensitive to this.

2.1 Designing for or with the subject?

An evolving map of Design Research, Liz Sanders

2.2 Exercise of power

The exercise of power, or the organization of power through the built environment, by enhancing or increasing the visibility, or the illusion of visibility, of certain groups was termed panopticism. (Foucault, 1975) Yet, power is also exercised in situations where the goal is to limit, rather than enhance, visibility. Archaeologist Emily Dale coined the counter-movement based not on the all-seeing eye of the panopticist, but on the invisibility of populations as Anopticism, or not-seeing. At its heart, anopticism is the ability or power to make individuals or groups invisible. (Dale, 2019)

3. Designing public history

3.1 The Exhibition Design process

Exhibitions are thematic public displays of information, curated to visually and tangibly represent a notable point of view. Historical archives, contemporary concepts, and future speculations are thus publicly presented to transcend their moment while also producing new sites for critical discourse. Exhibition design and associated programming comprise an interdisciplinary process, which presents challenges of coordination and pre-requisites the capacity to co-design. The diversity of skills and their relevance to individual exhibitions makes exhibition designers accustomed to working in project-oriented multi-disciplinary teams (Hammond & Waite, 2010). The following section illustrates some of these challenges through an ongoing case study, originally piloted in 2014, and now working toward a much broader implementation in 2020.

3.2 Groupware : remote collaboration

Currently, the focus of History Moves is on the design, production, and programming for a nationally touring exhibition to combine narratives of all participating women from Chicago, Brooklyn, and North Carolina. New tools and workflows are necessary to achieve the project’s aim at expanding its participatory model for not only collecting, but also interpreting, publicly presenting, and generating active and local discourse on relevant contemporary social topics.

3.3 Curation as action

Curation in the contemporary context refers most often to the preservation, organization, and interpretation activities of a museum, a gallery, or other types of collections for the public to see. It is the act of ‘selecting, organizing, and presenting (online content, merchandise, information, etc.), typically using professional or expert knowledge (Oxford Dictionary definition). However, the word “curate” originated from the Latin word ‘cura’ which translates as ‘care, concern, attention, management’. This fundamental understanding of the term establishes the relationship between the curator and the exhibit itself, to be grounded in care and mindful representation.

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