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17th November 2023

Review: Museum of Austerity – An expert guide to understanding hardship

Museum of Austerity is an evocative and immersive experience, revealing the harsh truths behind Conservative-led England.
Review: Museum of Austerity – An expert guide to understanding hardship
Photo: Mícheál @ Wikimedia Comms

This November, the immersive installation, Museum of Austerity,  brought its genius to HOME, Manchester’s favoured art, theatre, and cinema venue. The progressive and ground-breaking curation was unlike any exhibition I’ve experienced, aiming to bridge the gap between personal stories of Austerity Britain and the Conservative government, who implemented its policies and practices.

Trigger Warning: Mentions overdose and death.

The methods used to transmit personal stories are what make this project so remarkable. The installation is a multi-sensory and mixed-reality experience, which involves immersing yourself in the content using a VR headset. Within this realm, holographic displays and audio messages connect viewers to each human story and the world in which they exist.

Museum of Austerity is the innovative creation of two individuals, whose differing expertise offered the technical ability and background knowledge to bring these stories to life. Award-winning XR and theatre director, Sacha Wares offered her mastery in creating the holographic displays, whilst John Pring, editor of Disability News Service, offered the in-depth knowledge to support each account.

Philippa Day’s distressing story is one of many in the exhibition. With audio provided by her sister, the viewer is invited to engage with the victim’s story. Visually, you are stimulated by the holographic image of a woman in bed. She reads a Disability Living Allowance form, while cans of Coca-Cola, an empty takeaway box, and her children’s toys are scattered across the mattress. In your ears, the unfortunate events that led to her death are numbing.

Photo: Museum of Austerity @ HOME

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and already suffering from diabetes, an inquest heard the mismanagement of Philippa’s benefit claims was the predominant factor in her overdose. 28 errors were revealed in her case. No ordinary exhibition would allow the capacity to ruminate on such experiences, but the Museum of Austerity is no ordinary exhibition.

The curators use two timelines, inviting viewers to consider the centrality of these issues in British current affairs. The first begins by addressing the £6.2 billion spending cuts that followed the formation of David Cameron’s coalition government. It ends in September 2023, with Mel Stride’s proposal to remove a clause from the Work Capability Assessment form – a clause that protects claimants where work-related activity could severely endanger their well-being. These issues are still prevalent 13 years down the line.

The second timeline, ‘Deaths by Welfare’, documents people’s resistance, creativity, and activism surrounding deaths linked to the benefits system. Showcasing important institutions like Disabled People Against Cuts and the Mental Health Resistance Network, the exhibition commends the work of ground-breaking activists in pursuit of political justice.

Another account within the exhibition is that of Mark Wood. The installation presents the circumstances which led to him starving to death in 2013. Mark was found ineligible for employment and support allowance, despite his GP declaring him as entirely incapable of work. This decision caused him, a man already suffering from Asperger’s syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity, great anxiety and stress.

The installation broadcasts his holographic display across a green bench like those found in the House of Commons, illustrating how those in power helped decide his fate. Clutching his arms across his body for warmth, covered only by a tattered sleeping bag, the extremity of his condition is obvious.

Photo: Museum of Austerity @ HOME

With a cost-of-living crisis rubbing salt in the wounds of the less able, the Museum of Austerity could not feel more relevant. The installation’s depictions reach out through their holography to provoke a reaction regarding an urgent issue in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, the production has received international praise for its evocative disclosure of the atrocities of Austerity Britain. Nominated for ‘Best Digital Innovation’ at the UK Theatre Awards, previewed at the London Film Festival in 2021, and won International Documentary Festival Amsterdam’s ‘Best Immersive Production’ in that same year, the accolades are justified.  The documentary project is set to tour again in the Spring of 2024, and it’s not one to miss.

Words by Albie Fay

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