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Objects and TreatmentsStudent's Stories

Exploring Stakeholder Consultation in the Co-Conservation of Hearing Aids

11 December 2023

How should we conserve a hearing cornet from the Museum of Cardiff?

The Museum of Cardiff seeks to explore the city’s heritage through the stories of its people (Museum of Cardiff, 2023). Its collections are largely donated by local people and community groups. The institution’s dedication to social issues and the local community is evidenced through its work and co-curated displays with advocacy groups such as Cardiff People First (Cardiff People First, 2018). Its co-curated exhibitions are mirrored by other institutions such as the People’s History Museum in Manchester (Enckevort et al. 2023). However, the work of co-curation does not necessarily extend to co-conservation.

Medical and disability objects are often in collections with little to no contextual information attached, an issue which has in recent years been explored in such projects such as Mat Fraser’s Cabinet of Curiosities (School of Museum Studies, 2022). Many museums are seeking to improve not only accessibility and representation of their disabled visitors and employees, but the consideration of representing of disabled people within the collections themselves remains to be explored further (Rosenstein, et al. 2010). This can be difficult when often these objects have little information attached, dissociating them from their context.

Image shoes a hearing cornet broken into four pieces.
Hearing (headband) cornet from the Museum of Cardiff collection. It is from the early 20th century is made of steel and imitation tortoiseshell (cellulose acetate plastic) and has been broken into four pieces (Image Author’s Own, 2023). It was designed to be concealed from obvious notice in women’s hairstyles. Concealment is still a large consideration in hearing aid design today.


Within the Museum of Cardiff’s collection resides a headband hearing cornet, with little more information attached to it than the name of the donor. The museum has kindly provided this object to be the focus of my MSc Dissertation. In an effort towards co-conservation the Museum and I have discussed a variety of treatment options for their collections hearing cornet. A number of these options have now been pre-approved, and the Museum is happy for me to work with the one my research settles on as the most suitable. The museum’s lack of strict conservation requirements allows a freedom to explore how conservation decisions can be impacted by stakeholder involvement.

An object can hold different meanings and significance for different people, and consulting with a variety of stakeholders can be beneficial when exploring the value of an object or collection, particularly when it is linked to a particular community or demographic (Lupi, 2020. pp.84-92). Henderson (2020, p.196) argues that the conservator acts within wider society, where they have the (often missed) opportunity to engage with contemporary issues (Henderson 2020, p.197; Balachrangran, 2016).

The object’s history as a used hearing aid lends to its complex intangible value. I exist on the periphery of the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing community, as someone who has a disorder which provides difficulties in differentiating and processing sounds and words. The experiences of D/deaf and hard-of-hearing people are very personal, varied, complex, and sometimes conflicting. Through carrying out in-depth interviews, I hope to gain knowledge of their perceptions on hearing aids (past and present), museum displays, representation in heritage, and the issues of the medical gaze. This engagement with those who identify as D/deaf and hard-of-hearing will inform the conservation treatment of the hearing aid.

The Museum has pre-approved conservation treatment options, such as re-adhering the pieces and repackaging, but also 3D scanning and creating a 3D model. During the interviewing process, these possibilities have been offered, and we have discussed treatment they would prefer for the hearing aid to go through. These discussions will inform a significance assessment which will explore the tangible and intangible value of the object, which in turn will inform my conservation decision making alongside considerations of materials, for example.

Ear cornet in the Science Museum Collection. Made of metal and imitation tortoiseshell with adjustable head band, early 20th century, displayed on a mannequin head.
Hearing cornet in the Science Museum, London. Similar in shape and material to that of the Museum of Cardiff’s aid, it is displayed on a mannequin head to demonstrate how it would have been worn (Science Museum Group)


Acoustic headband hearing cornet (or 'Auricles') from the T. Hawksley & Son catalogue, showing how they would be worn on a woman's head and two different styles.
Acoustic headband hearing cornet (or ‘Auricles’) from the T. Hawksley & Son catalogue, showing how they would be worn on a woman’s head.

By questioning my perceptions of conservation through stakeholder engagement, I hope to acknowledge the context in which the object exists and understand that there are multiple options which can be considered for the object future and explore who these may be best for (Henderson et al, 2023, p.8).

The history of hearing aids and treatments for hearing loss has been littered with hearing perspectives of D/deafness and the pursuit of ‘normalcy’. Hearing aids have been used for centuries, and stigma, conflicting pressures to use them or not, and efforts to conceal their use have been around for just as long. Centring the perspectives of the D/deaf and hard of hearing will allow for the object to be re-associated and put into context, as well co-conserved with a consideration for the representation of those who may use them, may not want to use them, and those who might use them in the future.

My great thanks goes to the Museum of Cardiff for enabling my research and for their engagement with the local community and marginalised demographics to encourage representation of diverse stories in heritage.


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