At the Museum of Austerity

Daniel Trilling

Museum of Austerity is an immersive exhibition ‘that preserves memories of public and private events from the austerity era’. You could visit Room 1 at this year’s London Film Festival. It told the stories of disabled benefit claimants who died in the UK between 2010 and 2020. On my way in I was given an augmented reality headset and told to raise my hand if at any point I felt uncomfortable.

In the corridor outside there was a timeline on the wall. Conservative-led governments since 2010 have cut disability benefits while also making the system more punitive. In particular, they extended the use of work capability assessments – tests, carried out by private contractors, to assess whether people are ‘fit for work’ – introduced by New Labour in 2008. The result, in the words of a UN report from 2017, is a ‘human tragedy’.

Without the headset, the ‘museum’ was an empty room, save for a few chairs and a table in the middle. Mournful choral music played in the background. With the headset – earphones and a visor that overlays a digital image on what’s physically there – the room was transformed into something between a sculpture exhibition and a piece of verbatim theatre. Under the direction of Sacha Wares, working with John Pring, the editor of Disability News Service, English Touring Theatre have assembled a set of stories based on real-life testimony that visitors can explore at their own pace.

Half a dozen actors were frozen in tableaux vivants around the room. Near the entrance, there was a man lying unconscious on the floor, with a dog on a leash and a Lidl shopping bag in his hand. In a corner a woman sat with her knees up on a hospital bed, looking anguished. Another woman leaned on a surface to fill in a bureaucratic form. As you approached any one of the people, an audio track started to play, in which a close relative described the circumstances that led to their death.

The brother of the man on the ground said he was a ‘hard-working labourer’ whose abusive childhood drove him to drink. Even as alcoholism began to shut down his vital organs, he was denied disability benefit, struggling to support himself in his final months. ‘He was going to die anyway, but he didn’t deserve that,’ his brother said. ‘A human life is not just something you wash your hands of.’

The rendering of the figures – the actors were photographed using volumetric capture technology, which allows viewers to walk around them and see them in three dimensions – gave the exhibition an unsettling intimacy. You were shown people in desperate and sometimes humiliating circumstances, but could choose whether to stop and listen at a respectful distance, or walk up close and nosily inspect them. Peering over the shoulder of the woman filling in a form, you saw that she had written, in a box asking her reasons for failing to turn up to a Jobcentre appointment: ‘I was busy trying to kill myself.’ Visits to the exhibition were limited to thirty minutes, which wasn’t enough time to hear all the stories in full. An attendant told me that test audiences found it too upsetting to take in every single detail.

Was it voyeuristic of me, I wondered, to move from one person to another without hearing their whole story, or was I looking for common threads between their experiences? They were all people who had difficult lives made worse by the narrowing of the welfare state. The exhibition emphasised that this was a deliberate political choice. As you walked between the figures, the sound of the relatives’ testimony faded out and was replaced by a selection of banalities from the politicians in charge. Boris Johnson blustered through a reply to an MP who told him the government’s top priority should be to keep its citizens safe. ‘If people can work, they should work,’ David Cameron said. ‘It is right that people who are disabled can lead a life with dignity,’ said an upper-class voice I couldn’t place.