Ms Sarah E Hayward

Research project: John Langdon Down's Normansfield: Stories from the Archives and their Contribution to Heritage


The pursuit of social acceptance and integration, equal rights, and self-advocacy, is an ongoing struggle for people with a learning disability. An important part of this endeavour is the understanding – and ownership – of the history of learning disability. One of the pathways to achieving this is through heritage: the interpretation and (re)presentation of history to a contemporary audience.

This archives-based research project explores the early years of Normansfield Hospital, founded in 1868 by John Langdon Down (1828–1896), one of the first institutions dedicated to the understanding, education, and care, of people with a learning disability. The extensive Normansfield Archive Collection is now held at the London Metropolitan Archives, and Normansfield's largest surviving original building has become home to the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability.

The project is a multidisciplinary one, and it encompasses the fields of cultural heritage, museums, archives, interpretation, and the history of people with a learning disability. Through my engagement with the Normansfield Archive Collection, the thesis probes issues around archival research. These include addressing problematic historical language; negotiating presences and absences; giving voice to the voiceless; inclusivity in theory and in practice; creating narratives; and exploring different approaches to the museological interpretation of archival material.

The project's outcome comprises a written thesis, and three creative pieces designed for a museum environment: a video presentation which tells Lucy's Story; a six-stop audio guide and booklet; and the design for an exhibition entitled The Difficult Heritage of Learning Disability. The thesis addresses the historical and contemporary complexities and issues of researching, interpreting, and (re)presenting the history of people with a learning disability, as well as the ethical considerations involved. It also questions the positionality of this history in relation to ‘Difficult' Heritage. The project contributes new material, it encourages fresh discourse, and it shines new light upon this critical – yet largely marginalised and underrepresented – subject.


I joined Kingston University in 2012 and completed the taught MA in Museum and Gallery Studies the following year. Having felt that year fly by impossibly quickly, I applied to continue in higher education with a PhD. When I undertook the MA, I discovered freedom and inspiration through combining practice and theory, along with a new sense of confidence in my creative work. I have adopted a similar approach to my PhD project, and I have greatly enjoyed the challenge.

Areas of research interest

  • Museums
  • Heritage
  • 'Difficult' Heritage
  • Archives
  • Interpretation
  • Learning Disability History
  • Inclusion


  • MA (with Distinction) Museum and Gallery Studies, Kingston University London
  • BA English, Exeter University

Funding or awards received

  • Kingston University bursary