A Political/Relational Archival Approach: Applying Disability Studies’ Political/Relational to Archival Studies

Gracen Brilmyer


This project utilizes Alison Kafer’s political/relational model of disability studies as a tool to more critically understand power structures embedded in different archival processes – creation and appraisal, description, and access – and to re-conceptualize archival material as assemblages of politicized decisions. Kafer’s model, as presented in Feminist Queer Crip, draws upon previous models of disability to open up contestation and politicization of disability as a category. She shifts away from understanding disability as a purely medical “problem” of the body/mind, incorporates how social and architectural barriers can alienate non-normative bodies, and ultimately presents disability as a political site that is ever-changing and always in relation to other people, environments, and attitudes. Furthermore, the political/relational approach acknowledges that concepts of disability always already intersect with notions of race, class, gender and sexuality. This project proposes that an archival connection to disability studies illuminates the long history that record creation and appraisal processes have in documenting, surveilling and controlling disabled bodies and minds. A relational account of records highlights the multiple perspectives that get obscured through archival description and surfaces the power structures and alternative histories of archival material. By embracing the contestation of disability and therefore the ways in which it is represented in archives, archivists and archives users are able to challenge the ways in which norms and deviance are understood, perpetuated, and constructed in public narratives via archives. Moreover, this approach offers potential for archival access, investigating the ways in which access can become a mechanism of power by asking who an archives allows access to, by what means, and with what social and cultural expectations. This project, being at the intersection of disability studies, feminist discourse, and archival theory, ties theory with practice and radicalizes traditional approaches to understanding normativized constructs within archives.


Gracen Brilmyer is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). They have spent almost 10 years working in various natural history museums, focusing on the digital and physical curation of insect collections and received their Masters in Information Management and Systems from the University of California, Berkeley, where they focused on digital archive accessibility. Their current research lies at the intersection of disability studies, sexuality studies, and archival studies, centering on the history of colonialism, toxicity, and disability within natural history museums and the politicization of truth and objectivity in biological collections.