People with Down's syndrome are not accepted by all of society. That's something "Touchdown" – the world’s first exhibition about and by people with Down's syndrome – wants to change in the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundeskunsthalle) in Bonn. The project was initiated by people with and without trisomy 21. Who better to talk about this subject than those who live with a third copy of this chromosome?
Touchdown – we all know it as a sports term. In American football, it refers to success and in space travel, it marks a precision landing. "The word syndrome often has a negative connotation, which is why we debated a long time on what we should call this show. Meanwhile, the word 'touch' sounds positive. We want for society to get in touch with people who have this extra set of chromosomes," explains project manager Dr. Katja de Bragança. The Touchdown exhibition also refers to a precision landing because it tells the fictitious story of people with Down's syndrome who landed as aliens on Earth 5,000 years ago and stayed. Now a second mission lands on our planet in October of 2016 to check how its predecessors have fared. The background story of the exhibition is illustrated with comic drawings by Vincent Burmeister and is echoed on the seven walls of the seven themed rooms. People with and without trisomy 21 collaborated on this research project and prepared the exhibits.
People with and without Down's syndrome guide through the exhibition in tandem
Anne Leichtfuß, the webmaster of Ohrenkuss, a magazine of people with and without trisomy 21, explains the idea behind the exhibition. "The fact that my fellow writer colleagues are starting to write about their own life and the subject of Down’s syndrome, has slowly developed over the years when we realized that it triggers responses in social media." But then the need kept increasing. "We often notice that the media always reports about people with Down's syndrome but never lets the people who have the condition have their say. That’s something we want to change with our project," says de Bragança. On the website, Julia Bertmann of the advisory board publically expresses her intention for the project: "I want to explore my otherness." That’s why the team came up with a unique idea: tandem guided tours. Two people, one with and one without trisomy 21, guide the visitors through the exhibition and answer questions. "Oftentimes we get asked about our motivation to participate in this project. There are also questions about individual objects when the artist is a part of the tandem team," explains Leichtfuß. People speak more openly when they get to explain their own work.
"It makes a big difference, whether someone reads literature written by other people or whether they talk about their own concerns during the guided tours," adds Leichtfuß. According to de Bragança, the project team members with Down's syndrome create a new momentum; they challenge people, want to enlighten and teach people and become more professional. Having said that, just the fact that someone has Down’s syndrome or any other disability doesn’t automatically make him/her a first-hand expert. "If people delve into the subject, appear in public or participate in these tandem guided-tours – now that makes them experts," says Leichtfuß.
During her guided tours, Angela Fritzen focuses on the heart. The 42-year-old explains that every other person with Down's syndrome has a heart defect. One exhibit also features a 2,500-year-old female skeleton. Scientists wanted to find out whether the woman had Down's syndrome. "That was interesting, though she didn't have it," explains Fritzen. Julia Bertmann says, "When I walk through the exhibition and explain things, I feel good. I am taking seriously in the museum, by the press, during my speech and the guided tours. Everybody paid attention. We, the people with Down’s syndrome, are the main characters. People understand this."
Each individual room conveys a special message. For example, one room features exhibits dating from and featuring the time of National Socialism (more commonly known as Nazism). To make sure that people are not forced to deal with this subject matter, the room's design allows people to enter it separately from the rest of the exhibition if they choose to do so. After all, people with disabilities were deemed unworthy of life and had no right to live during the years of the Second World War.
One very important exhibit consists of two screens that hang on the wall and feature two people: Anna-Lisa Plettenberg and Julian Göpel, two persons with Down's syndrome. The video shows them both just standing there. "Our colleagues are often being stared at in public," the project manager explains. People wonder what they do for a living. How much money do they make? What are their hobbies? "That's why visitors have the chance to look at Anna-Lisa Plettenberg and Julian Göpel unhurriedly and at their leisure." Profiles providing exactly this type of information are located right next to the screens. "You don’t want to always be gawked at," says Fritzen, speaking from her own experience. During her tandem guided tour, she says, "If you stare at me, you can’t tell that I know how to read and do math. If you stare at me, you can’t tell that I have already completed my education a long time ago."
Enormous interest in the exhibition
The Touchdown21.info website also features an area called "Globus". Here, people with Down's syndrome from all over the world talk about their lives, their thoughts and their wishes and desires. Leichtfuß is excited about the variety. "It’s wonderful if the texts are written by the people themselves and not by a third person."
After just three weeks, the exhibition was already able to exceed the attendance numbers it projected for the entire exhibit duration. The exhibition can still be seen until March 12, 2017, at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundeskunsthalle) in Bonn but is also scheduled to be showcased in other German cities. It has not been determined yet where the exhibition moves to next. But there is definitely enormous interest in it.
Photo gallery: Touchdown - a exhibition from and with people with Down's syndrome
The exposition of the exhibition: a fictitious story of a mission, "First Mission" that landed on earth 5,000 years ago from the planet Kumusi. They like it on our planet, they get children and spread around the world. The flag shows a representation of the triple 21st chromosome in the cell.
Anna-Lisa Plettenberg and Julian Göpel expose themselves to the views of the visitors. Many people with Down's syndrome are often stared at in public, such in buses and trains.
The artist Markus Keller specializes in the production of figures of people with Down's syndome. The figure Otto was manufactured in 2012. Keller carves life-like figures, but also different scales.
The exhibition raises the question: Is it possible to recognize from a skeleton whether a person had trisomy 21? This exhibit turned out to be not so. The skull was examined for this.
The themes of love, partnership and wedding play an important role in "touchdown". The bridal dress by Birgit Ziegert was embroidered with different animal motifs and inscribed with names. Indeed, it has no armholes.
The ceramic figure of a child of Olmecian culture from Central or Western Mexico from 1400 to 1200 before Christ is said to show that Down's syndrome was already present before John Langdon-Down discovered it.
A student of Jan Joest van Kalkar from the Netherlands painted the painting "Nocturnal Adoration of the Christ Child" around 1515. At this time, nothing was known about Down's syndrome. Have they been portrayed as angels?
In 2015, Susanne Kümpel drew the picture titled "The Golden Centuries". According to the title, it represents the coliseum of Italy, a lion, walls, columns and a tree trunk.
The colorful embroidered wall carpet by Birgit Ziegert from the year 2014 reminds us of an underwater world with many special creatures.
John Langdon-Down influenced the term Down' syndrome with his name. He called it "Mongolism" in his time. At the age of 18, he first met a girl with trisomy 21. 33 years later, after his medical studies, he wrote down this meeting.
The wall carpet of Jeanne-Marie Mohn shows all 47 chromosomes of a human with trisomy 21. The chromosomes were embroidered in the form of a karyogram (ordered representation in the cell).
An extract of the Saxonian mirror (Sachsenspiegel) and the Saxon feudal right. It says that people with disabilities are allowed to inherit, just like everyone else. In addition, their relatives must look after them and promote them.