Jeff Rowlings, Shape’s Head of Programme, speaks with Jess Starns, who right now is juggling her studies with her passion for heritage as well as developing her art practice - and much more ...

Jeff Rowlings (JR): It’s great to catch up with you again, Jess. We first met a few years ago, of course, when Shape worked with you and artist Damien Robinson in a creative workshop entitled, ‘Dyspraxic Me’ -  referring to the organisation you founded for young adults with dyspraxia. I know you have been incredibly busy in the last year or so. Tell us a bit about what you have been doing. 

Jess Starns (JS): In November ‘Dyspraxic Me’ became an official charity. The group still meets regularly. This year we’ve been on our annual picnic, vlogging, tennis and hairstyling. I am now planning workshops for next year and our annual Dyspraxia Awareness Week event on Saturday 13th October.

JR: Congratulations on receiving your charity status, that’s quite an achievement. And I understand you are completing an Inclusive Arts Practice MA at the University of Brighton. How is that going?

JS: Yes, and I am really enjoying it! I’m studying part-time and can fit the course around my work. The course is very collaborative - for example, in February '18 we planned and delivered activities at the Tate Exchange, Tate Modern which supported visitors to collaborate.

“Neurodiversity is a positive word and celebrates the fact that there isn’t ‘wrong wiring’ in the brain.

JR: What did that involve?

JS: Well, students and visitors wrapped wool around a gazebo frame covering every inch in wool and took a photocopy of their hands then tided them on to the frame. I liked how over the week we could see how many people were involved in creating the structure.

Thankfully, I’ve had time to practice and develop my artwork. I’ve also delivered a session at the Wellcome Collection ‘Open Platform’ titled ‘To label, or not to label, that is the question? How does neurology affect how we experience the world and how others experience us? Join a conversation about neurodivergence’.  It was well attended and people got involved with the debate, which actually overran, owing to its popularity.

picture of jess starns reading in a sunny garden

Jess Starns

JR: Sounds brilliant. We had some really positive experiences with Tate Exchange, too - I agree it's a great platform for creative interactions with the public. Going back to your studies, what would you say is the main focus of your research?

JS: From 15th October- 26th November 2018 I shall be delivering my research project. As my Masters is arts-based we'll be using art as a way to gather data and have discussions responding to my research question, which is: How should we interpret and curate the history of labelling people with learning difficulties (neurodivergence)?

JR: This is what your call out is for, right?

JS: Yes. I am currently looking for a maximum of 10 participants to work with me as a group and being involved in the arts-based research. The research is for participants who define themselves as having a learning difficulty (neurodiversity) for example dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, ADHD, ASD and autism.

artwork satrically claiming cod liver oil is good for neurodiversity, featuring oil capsules and a swimming cod

Cod Liver Oil: artwork by Jess Starns

The research will take place over 7 sessions. From 15th October till 25th November for 7 weeks. The research will take place at the Free Space Project, Kentish Town Health Centre, 2 Bartholomew Road, London NW5 2BX.

Apart from the second session on Tuesday 23rd October - this will take place at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, Kings Cross, London NW1 2BE. Each session will last for two and a half hours, from 11am till 1.30pm.

JR: Okay. And what's the main purpose of the study/project?

JS: Mainly, the purpose and aims of the study are to start conversations through learning about neurodiversity history by exploring archives, newspaper articles and museum objects, reflecting on their own personal experiences, in comparison to, and informed by, archive items at the Wellcome Collection. Also learning what is important to the neurodivergent community when telling the history of labelling people with learning difficulties including charitable, medical, educational and personal narratives.

I want to discuss how to tell an unbiased narrative through historical accounts and personal experiences. And the terminology to use when talking about neurodiversity, the history of classifying people with learning difficulties, challenge prejudice views, to think about why there is a focus on ‘curing’ exploring current attitudes and how we portray neurodiversity in the media.

Through the research I would hope to find out for museums and collections what’s important to the neurodivergent  community when telling the history of labelling people with learning difficulties? Through the charitable, medical, educational and personal narratives.

JR: That's a lot of ground to cover! I mentioned your role for Dyspraxic Me, and you have referred to neurodiversity as well. Can you tell us more about what these terms mean to you, and why you feel it is important to being doing this research – especially at a time when there appears to be progress, in a general way, being made in the arts around diversity and inclusion.

JS: Neurodiversity is a positive word and celebrates the fact that there isn’t ‘wrong wiring’ in the brain. I think it is important to tell hidden stories and to highlight current issues for the neurodivergent community happening right now. I think museums are great places to share stories, for activism and making change.

JR: Absolutely, and I suppose the heart of my question is, who is being left out, and who is doing the labelling that makes this happen? 

JS: I guess people who are being labelled are anyone who has a invisible disability. The education system and society don’t like differences because they can’t put them into the structure that’s already defined.

JR: Am I right that you were involved in a project last year, where you turned the whole ‘labelling’ debate on its head, through the making of an artwork based on ‘normative’ heritage labels? Tell us more about this, please.

JS: I participated at the Museum Association Festival of Change last year in Manchester. I created the ‘Museum of the Labelled’ and made a start on a huge timeline telling the outline of the history of neurodiversity. I also wrote the ‘labels’ on luggage tags of the previous names used for example dyspraxia has previously been known as clumsy childhood syndrome.

images of museum labels critical of victorian portraits of practitioners who chose medical labels for disabled people

images of museum labels critical of sepia portraits of practitioners who chose medical labels for disabled people

detasil from museum project label where text is visible telling visitors about the dubious history of

Jess Starns' 'Museum of the Labelled' project

JR: That’s fascinating. Disturbing, but fascinating. Hopefully readers will get a good sense of this from these photos. So, what’s next for you, and how does it relate to your research?

JS: I would like to be able to highlight neurodiverse museum objects within collections. Being able to support neurodivergent stories and people’s work. I am also passionate about making museums inclusive as possible for all.

JR: And how can people get in touch with you, if they want to take part?

JS: If people are interested in taking part or would like to find out more information they are welcome to email me at: [email protected]

JR: Thank you so much for that, Jess, so much to explore and take further. We hope you get lots of applicants for your project, and wish you all the best with it.

We’ll be following it with great interest - and keeping a note of your Dyspraxia Awareness Week event on Saturday 13th October, 2018.

Banner Image: Camel Milk artwork by Jess Starns

All photos by Jess Starns

For more Shape blogs, click here. Have an article or viewpoint you would like to share? Get in touch with us via [email protected]