Tenement Museum: Technology, History, & Contemporary Issues @ Shop Life

In March I had the opportunity to visit New York City again, and, as is usually the case, booked a space in the (arguably best neighborhood in the city) Lower East Side. There are a lot of things that make the LES the best, including food, architecture, and the relatively quiet streets, but one of the best attributes the LES can boast is the LowerEast Side Tenement Museum.

Reflections: Our wee group outside the Tenement

The Tenement Museum was a staple of my graduate education discussion groups, in part for their innovative interpretation and programs.  As I continued my education as a PhD student, the ground-breaking efforts to include people with disabilities in a (somewhat problematic) space became a focus of my research, and I’ve written about their efforts in previous blogs.

On this most recent trip, I met up with some fellow museum professionals in the city, and we booked tickets for the Shop Life tour.  This is the newest tour at the museum, and also the only tour within the actual historic building that is accessible for people with mobility issues.  The museum website describes the tour: “.. visitors explore the immigrant businesses once located at 97 Orchard Street, where communities worked, shopped, celebrated and struggled for more than a century. The exhibit features a re-created 1870’s German beer saloon once run by John and Caroline Schneider, as well as an interactive “sales counter” where visitors select audio and visual media clips to explore the stories of turn-of-the-century kosher butchers Israel and Goldie Lustgarten, 1930s auctioneer Max Marcus, and 1970s undergarment discounters Frances & Sidney Meda.”

Photo from the Tenement Museum website.

The tour started in the German bar set-up from the 1870s.  Our group was not a particularly lively group of tourists, but our tour guide made the most of it with interactive aspects of the tour as well as inquiry-based learning.  From the story of the Schneiders’ business, we went through the building to see rooms that are in various states of preservation or excavation.

Advertisement announcing the opening of Schneider’s Beer Garden in the LES

One of the coolest aspects of this tour, aside from the interpretation of a range of time periods and personal stories of the people who lived there, was the use of primary sources in the interpretation of the space. On my first tour of the museum in 2012 I noticed the commitment to the use of primary sources and photographs, and this tour was not an exception.  Advertisements, photographs, menus, announcements, and other sources all provided that tangible connection to the past that museums and interpreters seek to impart.

Perhaps the best part of the tour, however, was at the end, when we were able to engage in active learning and visitor choice using some pretty cool (and not distracting or problematic or difficult) technology.  Technology can be the bane of some museums and exhibits as it often needs updates, breaks, or is rife with user errors. We entered the interactive space, where each person was given space at a table with projected instructions.  We each chose an artifact from the shelves behind us that we wanted to know more about.  The artifacts told the stories of the people, businesses, neighborhood, and historical context who lived and worked in the space where we stood.  We could explore as much or as little about these artifacts and their associated stories before moving on to another item/time period/story.

Lately the Tenement Museum has been in the news for their activism (and the subsequent backlash against that activism) regarding immigration.  The stories of the Tenement Museum would not exist without immigrants.  At the end of our tour, the guide played a short film about a current immigrant business owner who lives and works in the neighborhood of the museum.  She encouraged us to visit his and other immigrant shops throughout the city.  This activism and the commitment to the community surrounding the museum is what museums should be all about.  Connecting the past to the present makes the experience more meaningful and impactful.  I hope to explore these themes and topics more in the future.

I can’t wait to go back and try another tour! Have you been to the Tenement Museum?  Which tours did you take, which would you recommend, and why?



NCPH 2016 – Working Group on Accessibility!

Next month, I’ll be presenting work at the National Council on Public History’s annual challenging-the-exclusive-past-ncph-2016meeting in Baltimore!  The working group – MAKING PUBLIC HISTORY ACCESSIBLE: EXPLORING BEST PRACTICES FOR DISABILITY ACCESS – 2016 WORKING GROUP – has created a page on the Public History Commons to foster conversation and ideas before the conference.

The working group introduction states, “Many of our museums and historic sites still exclude persons with disabilities, whether through physical barriers, communication barriers, or the omission of disability from the historical narrative. Public historians have an important role to play in providing an inclusive experience within their programs and institutions. In conjunction with the 25th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act, this working group will discuss and begin to address the challenges public historians face in creating fully inclusive sites and programs for people with all types of disabilities.”

Each participant has posted a case studies on the commons; mine can be found here. Please take a moment to browse the case studies and contribute to the conversation! 

As you may know, this aligns itself perfectly with my research! Here is my case study information:

  • How did I get here, and what did I do about it?

As I started my Public History PhD Program, I knew I wanted to do work in museums, possibly with a concentration in education. During the NCPH conference in Pensacola, FL, I walked downtown where adults with special needs were having a field trip in a park. It struck me in that moment that in my experience, at the history museums I had worked with up to that point, I had never worked with a group of people with special needs. During my dissertation research, I wanted to see how historic house museums and historic sites can create better, more accessible spaces, for all visitors. Specifically, I focused on field trips for high school students in general special education classes. In my experience in museums for several years across Tennessee, I didn’t see historymuseums, specifically, making an effort to create accessible spaces, beyond the typical ADA requirements. As part of my research, I visited several art museums that had specific programming, as well as some leading museums in New York City. I was able to take what worked and didn’t work for those sites, and through experimentation at a historic site in Tennessee I was able to come up with the “best practices” for creating programs for people with special needs at museums. After graduation, I published this manuscript as Programming for People With Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites, which include 7 practical steps for anyone wants to work with groups of people with special needs or disabilities, or frankly with any group in general at a museum. Another aspect of my research is the history of disability in museums – not through access necessarily, but rather how people with disabilities have been portrayed at museums, or “museums,” in the past, as exhibits rather than as visitors with agency.

  • What does it mean to make historic sites and programs accessible for people with disabilities? What challenges do smaller sites face in becoming fully accessible?

I think, and hope, that accessibility is starting to move beyond ADA requirements for wheelchairs, accommodations for hearing and sight impaired, and become something that is embraced, rather than a moral and legal obligation. Universal design is a term often used to describe a one-size-fits-all type of site or program, which should be the best solution for every person. That isn’t always the most feasible solution though, especially at smaller sites with limited staff, resources, and funds. Small budgets, historic buildings, limited time… all those things that staff at historic sites are so familiar with can put accessibility on the backburner to paying the electric bill, running copies for the board of directors, or directing a cider-and-cookies Christmas event for the public. However, even small adaptations to existing tours or programs or even the site itself can help with access for more visitors.

  • What accessibility standards do practitioners currently use?

Until recently, several museums and sites that I worked at did only the bare minimum for ADA, and often not even that. However, there are some good guidelines from the Smithsonian Institute for things like exhibit text and font size for people with low vision, introductory videos are often Closed Captioned, and some historic buildings even have ramps up to the first floor. There are several really great things in the works at museums I’ve visited – 3D printings of paintings or art (great for everyone, not just sight impaired), closed-museum tours for groups of students with autism, the old photos of the upstairs album for historic houses with multiple stories. Hopefully innovations and conversations, like this one, will inspire others to come up with more solutions and standards.

  • How should staff and volunteers be trained to incorporate accessibility standards into their practices?

One of the most striking aspects of my research was the lack of training in accessibility, in all positions at museums and historic sites from the Director to education staff, to security and reception. Even a bit of sensitivity and awareness training of disability and accessibility at a regular staff or board meeting can go a long way. As a part of my department service as a PhD student, I held an Accessibility in Museums workshop for the public. It was an all-day affair, with Morning session speakers, including a Keynote Speaker, Krista Flores, a Program Specialist at Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program, additional speakers: Karen Wade, Director of Homestead Museum, Los Angeles County, California and Dr. Lisa Pruitt, Middle Tennessee State University.  Additionally, a panel of various experts in the fields of education, museums, special education, recreation and more spoke about challenges and solutions in their own fields. Afternoon Breakout sessions included case studies, information about specific issues, and think-tank opportunities. The workshop was not as well-attended as we hoped it would be, but those who did attend said that they saw the value in such a workshop and hoped that more would be available in the future.

  • In what ways can new technologies assist public historians in making their sites and interpretation more accessible? What new challenges do these technologies pose?

Tablet technology, digital media, and 3D printing are some of the newest and best ways that we can reach more people, “make history exciting,” and create accessible spaces and programs. Apps and tours and videos can especially make accessibility to historic buildings better, but a lot of those sites do not have the funds available to purchase technology that is changing quickly. There are some grants available through local or state governments, for technology for accessibility, but those are limited. In my own experience at a historic house museum, the site received a grant to create tablet tours. Then there were several changes in administration; then new research changed many of the stories that had been told on tours; then the entire focus of the mission of the site changed. To my knowledge, that project is still out there, funding still available, but at this point, the technology that was supposed to be used, 5 years ago, is already out of date, as well as the script that was paid for and written by local scholars.

  • How can we increase the number of visitors with disabilities to our sites?

There are many ways to increase the number of visitors with disabilities – by having a space that they can access, by telling their own stories so they can see themselves in the museum, through involvement from the very beginning, and more. In my own experience, reaching out to communities and telling them that they are even welcome is a big aspect, especially with children with special needs. In a survey I distributed, teachers and parents of children with special needs were concerned that history museums or historic sites (not necessarily science or children’s museums) were supposed to be quiet and still places, where no disruptions or noise would be tolerated. In my experience, by reaching out and inviting students and teachers to a specific program tailored just to their needs through detailed discussion with the teachers and aides, that myth was dispelled, and everyone had a great and educational time at the historic site.

Accessible Programs in Archaeology and Museums

Thanks to Dr. Robert Connolly at Archaeology, Museums & Outreach for the review of my session at AASLH last week. My own updates and reviews from AASLH in St. Paul coming soon!

Other Voices

kstringer-coverThis past week I attended the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I have come to expect the unexpected when I attend professional meetings.  Perhaps the greatest unexpected highlight of the AASLH conference was a session organized by my former student and now colleague, Katie Stringer titled “Welcoming All Visitors: Accessible Programs at History Museums and Sites.” Through her dissertation research, Katie has developed considerable expertise in this area.  She recently published Programming For People With Special Needs: A Guide For Museums and Historic Sites.  The volume focuses on seven key components needed to create effective museum experiences for individuals with special needs.  Based on her work in Tennessee, the book also draws on case studies as disparate as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn’s Transit Museum.  The 110 page volume is a concise primer filled with…

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My book is out!

How did I let a month go by without posting this immediately?  A sign of the life of a museum director, I suppose.  In this week’s adventures, my assistant found a squatter set up on the back porch of our secondary historic home. Playing Xbox.

Anyway… without further ado…

That's my name! On the front of my book!

That’s my name! On the front of my book!

In case you haven’t followed the story of publication and proposals and writing and so forth, here is a short description:

Programming for People with Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites will help museums and historic sites become truly inclusive educational experiences. The book is unique because it covers education and inclusion for those with both intellectual and learning disabilities.

The book features the seven key components of creating effective programming for people with special needs, especially elementary and secondary students with intellectual disabilities:

  • 1442227605Sensitivity and awareness training
  • Planning and communication
  • Timing
  • Engagement and social/life skills
  • Object-centered and inquiry-based programs
  • Structure
  • Flexibility

In addition, this book features and discusses programs such as the Museum of Modern Art‘s Meet Me program and ones for children with autism at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn as models for other organizations to adapt for their use.

Its focus on visitors of all ages who have cognitive or intellectual disabilities or special needs makes this title essential for all museum and historic site professionals, especially educators or administrators, but also for museum studies students and those interested in informal education.

I already have two reviews of the book, too!  Here is what my esteemed colleagues had to say about the book:
Programming for People with Special Needs is an invaluable manual with clear, concise examples of how museums benefit when they open their doors, exhibits, and programming to all audiences in a community. A commitment to common-sense universal design principles opens the dialogue about what matters in our history and culture to every citizen, thus enriching our communities through better education and community engagement.
— Carroll Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee University, and Tennessee State Historian

Programming for People with Special Needs is an important new resource for any museum or historic site serious about expanding their current audience base and preparing for tomorrow’s visitors. While the ADA already requires us to accommodate visitors’ physical needs, it is equally important that our programs consider the needs of visitors experiencing various forms of learning and intellectual disabilities, including memory loss, especially since their numbers are expected to increase dramatically over the next several decades. This thorough and practical volume can help your institution accomplish this goal and, in turn, become a museum or historic site better prepared for the future.
— Karen Graham Wade, director, Homestead Museum, City of Industry, California

I hope that if you work at a historic site, historic house, history museum, or small museum that you will encourage your supervisor or staff to read this book.  I really did approach this topic with real-world implications in mind.
You can purchase the book from the publisher on their website.  I suggest hardcover. 😉
Thanks everyone for their support throughout this project, especially my parents, my Charles, Dr. West, and my publisher at R&L Charles.

What Is a Museum – Ripley’s Believe It or Not

After the last post on Cabinets of Curiosities, I wanted to address the Ripley’s franchise as a separate post.

Ripley's of St. Augustine

Ripley’s of St. Augustine

Today, a modern cabinet of curiosities is the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums found in many tourist destinations across the United States and in nine other countries.

Robert Ripley was an explorer, adventurer, and cartoonist who profited from the many gaffes and new things that he brought back from over 200 countries he visited during his lifetime.   By 1929 he claimed to “have traveled in 64 countries… and the strangest thing I saw was man.”  He brought back images, casts, and stories about the people and things he saw in his travels; in addition to opening a museum to display these items, he also drew them as cartoons which were published throughout his lifetime.  The first Ripley’s Odditorium opened in 1933 in Chicago, with collections based on his travels and the experiences he had. Continue reading

What is a “freak”?

What constitutes a freak?

What constitutes a freak?

A section of my dissertation discusses the meaning of freak, and what exactly the term “freak” means.  In the study, I relate the sideshow and freakshows of the past (and sometimes the present!) to exhibitions in museums.

Webster’s online dictionary defines “freak” as: “one that is markedly unusual or abnormal: as a person or animal having a physical oddity and appearing in a circus sideshow.”

Photo from Wikipedia "freak" entry. Their caption reads, "Julia Pastrana, a woman of unusual appearance."

Photo from Wikipedia “freak” entry. Their caption reads, “Julia Pastrana, a woman of unusual appearance.”

Wikipedia says, “In current usage, the word “freak” is commonly used to refer to a person with something strikingly unusual about their appearance or behaviour… An older usage refers to the physically deformed, or having extraordinary diseases and conditions, such as sideshowperformers. This has fallen into disuse, except as a pejorative, and (among the performers of such shows) as jargon.”

To historian Robert Bogdan, “freak” may be a frame of mind, a set of practices that person employs, or a way of thinking about and presenting people. Sideshow U.S.A. by Rachel Adams defines freakishness as “a historically variable quality, derived less from particular physical attributes than the spectacle of the extraordinary body swathed in theatrical props.”

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is a disability historian who analyzes disability and the freak show.  She says, “Freaks are above all products of perception: they are the consequences of a comparative relationship in which those who control the social discourse and the means of representation recruit the seeming truth of the body to claim the center for themselves and banish others to the margins.”

Coney Island Sidshow Entrance, 2008.

Coney Island Sidshow Entrance, 2008.

By labeling a person a freak, the sideshow takes away the humanity of the performer because he or she might not have the same physical characteristics of the “normal” person, and authorizing the paying customer to approach the person as an object of curiosity and entertainment.  To reconcile the exploitation of people who were different as curiosities worthy of admission price, society had only to take away the humanity of those individuals.

The shift from “born different” to “self-made” freaks in sideshows and other displays is shown in the sideshows of Coney Island today, television shows and movies.

Cast of "Freakshow" on AMC

Cast of “Freakshow” on AMC

A promotional video for the new television program called Freakshow premiered on the American Movie Channel in the fall of 2012.  The show follows the Venice Beach Freakshow performers in a reality show format.  The promo features several individuals with physical disabilities.  The main character, owner and performer Todd Ray, states in the promo, “freak is one of the most positive words I can think of; for us freak means normal.”

In addition to the live sideshows of Coney Island and Venice Beach and the new program Freakshow on the cable network AMC, many television programs take on the circus midway sideshow.  As technologies and interests grow and change, perhaps this is simply the next evolution in the presentation of “the other” for entertainment at home.

Perhaps today society is more comfortable watching, asking questions, and gawking at the different people with disabilities or different proclivities than they would be in a public forum.

How do you define “freak”?  How did sideshows and freakshows of the past influence exhibitions today?

TAM It 2013 – Recap and Highlights

The most wonderful time of the year: TAM 2013

The most wonderful time of the year: TAM 2013

It is once again the time for me to regale you all with tales from the Tennessee Association of Museums Annual Conference.  This year, the meeting was held just up the road in Franklin, which gave participants a great opportunity to visit the sites of near-by Columbia and the rich Civil War history of Franklin.

This year I attended as a conference presenter (twice!), PhD Candidate for MTSU, and as the Director of Collections, Interpretation, and Development for the Sam Davis Home and Museum (that’s a whole other post – if you’ve wondered where I have been, there is your answer – I intend to post more updates in the next week).

In among the sessions, great lunch and dinner breaks, site visits, and of course, hospitality suite shenanigans, I had a great opportunity to chat with and learn from other museum professionals about struggles and triumphs that we all share.  This fit in very well with the theme of this year’s conference, “Against All Odds: Stories of Determination and Resilience.”

Meredith, me, and RKD at the Awards Dinner

Meredith, me, and RKD at the Awards Dinner

The first day we traveled to Columbia, Tennessee to visit the James K. Polk Home, the Athenaeum, and a private residence.  We then had the awards dinner and tons of fun at the Veteran’s Memorial Hall.

Early the next morning, I chaired a panel called, “Acting on Accessibility in a Post-ADA America” with Dr. Brenden Martin from MTSU, Jared Norwood from MTSU, and Ashleigh Oatts from Marble Springs State Historic Site.  We asked such questions as: Is compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enough? Is your site targeting and building an important audience by creating new opportunities for visitors with disabilities? The session  discussed ways that museums and historic sites can develop accessibility through exhibits, site layout, and program offerings in a post-ADA world by going beyond the typical “fixes” of ramps and benches.  Topics covered included the historical context of ADA, universal and exhibit design, reaching out to Special Education classrooms and individuals with cognitive delay, and struggles specific to historic sites and historic house museums.  Strategies and tips were provided, and we facilitated a short discussion about possibilities and solutions for specific sites.  Below is my presentation: 

Emerging Professionals Discussion

Emerging Professionals Discussion

The same afternoon, fellow PhD Candidate Rebecca Duke and Rachael South Bogema from the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa joined me for a session called, “Rookie Roundtable: Discussions and Tips for Young Emerging Professionals.”  The session was designed as a group discussion to talk about challenges, issues, and advice for people just getting started in the field, students, or those that are trying to figure out where to go next.  We had a great conversation with people from all over the state, and everyone had great stories and advice to share! Please see Rachael’s blog on the C.H. Nash Museum site for more information!

Table 1 is victorious at the TAM Auction

Table 1 is victorious at the TAM Auction



Thursday night we visited Carnton Plantation, and then we got to experience the highly-anticipated dinner and live auction!  Table 1 walked away victorious, with every person seated there taking home at least one prize.  I even walked away with the most coveted prize: the Hospitality Suite Painting, which was created in the bathtub of the suite by TAM members the evening before the auction.

On Friday I attended two great sessions: “Against All Odds: Social Media Strategy and Planning on a Shoestring Budget” with Catherine Shtyenberg, assistant curator/web and social media coordinator, at the Frank H. McClung Museum and then a session about commemoration at historic sites which included: Melissa Davis from Humanities Tennessee,  Myers Brown from the TN State Museum, Charlie Rhodarmer from the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, and Jeff Wells from TN State Parks.  I know I took a lot away from both of these sessions, including a great program through Humanities Tennessee that will take place at the Sam Davis Home next month!  More information here.

You can see Shtyenberg’s wonderful and informative presentation on slideshare by clicking this link.

As always, I could go on much longer about how wonderful TAM was this year (as it is every year).  Instead, I will include these pictures from Rebecca Duke and Tori Mason and the official TAM facebook page so you can live vicariously:

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Sideshows and Freakshows: A Short History

Though my posts have been lacking lately, I can assure you it isn’t because I haven’t been writing at all;  I’ve been finishing several chapters of my dissertation so that I can graduate (in addition to working again at the Sam Davis Home!).  To give you all something fun to read, I’m posting some of my research about sideshows and “freaks” that I have come across.  Hope you enjoy!

"Outside a freak show at the Rutland Fair in Vermont." Photograph by Jack Delano.  From the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC.

“Outside a freak show at the Rutland Fair in Vermont.” Photograph by Jack Delano. From the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC.

The exhibitions of people who are different have been called many things: Raree Shows, Halls of Human Curiosities, Sideshows, Pitshows, Odditoriums, Congress of Oddities, Collections of Human Wonders, Museum of Nature’s Mistakes, and Freakshows.   One of the first examples of a traveling exhibit of a person appeared in 1738,  in a colonial American newspaper; the paper ran an advertisement for an exhibit of a person who “was taken in a wood at Guinea, tis a female about four feet high, in every part like a woman excepting her head which nearly resembles the ape.”[1]  Throughout the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, freakshows or sideshows were among the most popular attractions for the middle class public.

During the nineteenth century, the superstitious ideas of anomalies in human nature as bad omens, witchcraft, or punishment for evil deeds were beginning to fade, and people became curious about, rather than afraid of, people who were different.[2]  From 1840 until 1940 freak shows were at their height; 1840 is the year usually attributed to the beginning of the freak show era, because that is the year that P.T. Barnum began the aforementioned American Museum in New  York City which was one of the first dime museums in America. The museum contained many exhibits and gaffes, but it also housed many people who were considered to be rarities worthy of exhibition.  These people included: General Tom Thumb, a person with dwarfism, “the Aztec Twins,” albinos, the “what is it,” who was also a person with microcephaly, and many other “living curiosities.”[3]

Burning of Barnum's Museum, July 13th, 1865 / after the original painting by C. P. Cranch, The Eno collection of New York City views

Burning of Barnum’s Museum, July 13th, 1865 / after the original painting by C. P. Cranch, The Eno collection of New York City views

In 1865 a fire destroyed P.T. Barnum’s original American Museum.  The Barnum American Museum fire was reported in the New York Times, and the article listed many of the items of interest that had been lost in the fire, though none of the people who were exhibited had been killed.[5]  After the fire claimed the museum, an article published in 1865 claimed that Barnum was constructing a new museum to replace the old.   The author claimed that, “the fact is, that the loss of the museum was a national calamity.”[6]   However, the museum yet again burned to the ground in 1868 and was not again rebuilt.[7]  Instead, Barnum took his show on the road and became one of the most famous traveling circuses.

For over 100 years, entrepreneurs organized exhibitions of people with physical, mental, and behavioral disabilities or impairments were organized to amuse the public and generate a profit.  Many times they advertised exhibitions as educational and scientific activities, but the exhibits were a profitable business for those in charge.[8]  Barnum’s “museum” and others like it became a sub-category of museums, known as dime museums.  Many times they housed gaffes or fake objects and people, and as in the case of Barnum’s museum, following its downfall it was transformed into a circus or carnival sideshow exhibit.  While people likely did not conflate museums with sideshows, the sideshows were generally billed as educational events and opportunities, and the sideshow did grow out of the dime museum tradition.

"The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. The Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena. [with] Smallest Man Alive [and] the Congo Giant" from New York and Cincinnati : Strobridge & Co. Lith., 1898.  Accessed through the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

“The Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. The Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena. [with] Smallest Man Alive [and] the Congo Giant” from New York and Cincinnati : Strobridge & Co. Lith., 1898. Accessed through the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

Once the sideshow or freakshow became an entity of its own, organizers named the people who were integral to these attractions were named curiosities, rarities, oddities, wonders, mistakes, prodigies, special people, and even monsters.  The bally shouters and fair organizers categorized performers into different races and natural mistakes, such as giants, people without arms or legs, obese, conjoined twins, “wild” men hailed to have been from foreign and unexplored lands, little people, albinos, and more.   People with physical disabilities or anomalies are generally called “born different” peoples, unlike those who are “made freaks” by swallowing swords or nailing objects into their heads.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth boasted “Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena” with both born and created anomalies, as shown in Figure 4.  Shown in the image are: a strong man, a bearded lady, a pin-head, two small men, a dog faced girl, two unidentified ladies, a man with a parasitic twin, a sword swallower, conjoined twins, and a giant.  Today’s freak shows consist mainly of people who are “made freaks” who do dangerous tricks or have a rare talents, though there are some instances of “born differents” still today.


In the next post, I will present definitions of “freak” according to academics.  What do you think constitutes freakishness?


                [1] Robert Bogden.  Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 25.

[2] Ibid., 27.

                 [3] Phineas T. Barnum, An Illustrated Catalogue And Guide Book To Barnum’s American Museum (New York : Wynkoop, Hallenbeck & Thomas, circa 1860).

                 [4] From the New York Public Library online archives, accessed 1/17/2013  < http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1659268>

                 [5] “DISASTROUS FIRE.: Total Destruction of Barnum’s American Museum.” in New York Times (1857-1922); Jul 14, 1865; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2009).

                 [6] “Barnum’s New Museum Project.: MUSEUM WILL CONTAIN..” in New York Times (1857-1922); Jul 18, 1865; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2009) pg. 5.

                 [7] “BURNING OF BARNUM’S MUSEUM: LIST OF LOSSES AND INSURANCES” in New York Times (1857-1922); Mar 4, 1868;  ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2009) pg. 8.

                 [8] Edwin L. Godkin, “A Word About Museums,” The Nation, (July 27, 1865): 113-114.

Disability and Your Cultural Organization: Going Beyond ADA

Today’s post is all about the workshop I have been coordinating with MTSU’s History Department and Public History program.

 “Disability and Your Cultural Organization: Sensitivity and Strategies for Going Beyond ADA” is a symposium that will provide resources and support to public organizations such as museums and schools to develop and improve program offerings to the under-served community of students and adults with disabilities.  This program will also provide an opportunity for professionals to learn best practices. The symposium will also help small museums with limited resources to be more inclusive in their programs and exhibits.

The workshop will take place on November 3rd from 9:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m. in the Business and Aerospace Building at MTSU in Murfreesboro, TN (Directions and map available here: http://www.mtsu.edu/rootpage_files/MTSUCampusMap.pdf) .

This event will feature keynote speaker Krista Flores from the Smithsonian Institute Accessibility Program.  In addition to the keynote speaker, who will address the major issues of accessibility in museums, our program includes, Dr. Lisa Pruitt, who will speak on disability history and the context of the workshop and Ms. Karen Wade of the Homestead Museum in Los Angeles County, California, who will speak on  welcoming diverse audiences to museums.  After the speakers and a brief break, participants will have the opportunity to hear a panel speak on disabilities and cultural organizations.  The panel includes Dr. Bren Martin, museum studies professor as moderator; Tracy Hamby, a recreational therapist; Dr. Craig Rice from the MTSU Special Education Department, and also our speakers.

In the afternoon, participants will have the opportunity to attend two of four breakout work sessions.  These 40-minute sessions are designed to give museum professionals the opportunity to discuss strategies for their own sites and to share tactics they have used or plan to use.   Possible session include: museum and exhibit design, sensory impairments, strategies for the physically impaired, and cognitive and developmental delay.

We expect to have approximately 60 participants in the program, and the workshop will also be filmed, and data and literature from the conference will be made available after the initial conference via internet and email.

Registration for this workshop is $20, and this fee does include lunch.  Space is limited, so please register early.  Registration will be closed on October 26th or when the seats are filled.

The registration form and flyer are available at: http://mtsu.edu/history/disability_workshop.php

You may email the registration form to me at mks2x@mtmail.mtsu.edu, but please send in payment to the address above. Confirmation will be sent upon reciept of payment. *Please make checks payable to MTSU History Department. 

A big thank you to our sponsors: MTSU History Department and Public History Program, the Association of Graduate Students in History, Tennessee Association of Museums, and the Inter-Museum Council of Nashville, and to our planning partner, the American Association of State and Local History.  

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me at mks2x@mtmail.mtsu.edu

We look forward to seeing you there!

Q&A With Jason Black, Black Scorpion

Image courtesy of Jason Black

In my last post I spoke of my meeting with Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum and my trip to Coney Island.  In our discussion, Dr. Birnbaum mentioned Jason Black.  I contacted him, and he was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

A link to his Sound Cloud page is available here, and his webpage is Black For President.

Mr. Black told me, “I am the Black Scorpion. I do participate in freak show/sideshow performances. Mostly what I do is to teach humans about other humans through humor with heart.
The world I’ve grown up in is one that can be, at times, hard headed and difficult to communicate with, because of preconceived notions or thoughts, if you will, as to who someone with different “fill in the blank; i.e.: color of skin, body type, number of fingers, walking ability, height, sex, sexuality, birth place…etc” is suppose to be- their place in the world and how they should act.
What I do on stage is magic, not because of illusions or tricks but because of soul. I try to change preconceived negatives into positives and at times fail miserably when agendas have already put blinders along someone’s path through our world.”

Courtesy of Jason Black

What influenced your decisions to become a performer? Harpo Marx, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor to name a few…

What are some of the best experiences you’ve had as a performer? Usually if a crowd is attentive it will be a fairly good experience.

Do you have any specific examples of shows that have gone really well or just terribly bad because of the way people are trained to think?
No examples I can recall. I’ve had folks walk out because of jokes.
How do you think things would be different for you as a performer if you lived in the late 1800s-early 1900s?  What impacts those differences in perceptions?
I probably would have made more money, owned a show and my act would have been slightly different because I would have to change some of the topical humor or I may have been chased by an angry mob of villagers with pitchforks and torches into a barn only to be silently killed by my creator.
Also, have you had any negative feedback from people who don’t think you should “exploit” yourself and your disability?
 I think when folks see my act the word “exploit” doesn’t really cross their minds, though I could be wrong. My act is more of a surreal comedy show in the vein of Andy Kaufman and Harpo Marx. Negative feedback I’ve received has always been of the political nature, usually geriatric white men upset over something I’ve said. I mostly teach about and share experiences of life with ectrodactyly. But really all performers are exploiting themselves. If anything I exploit my quick wit, charm and comedic timing. 
Have you studied the sideshows of the past, and who is your favorite performer from the past?  Why?
No I stay away from learning too much about past performers of sideshow, don’t want to be influenced. Also that is the same reason I do not watch South Park. I study more of the comedic genre of the past, simply love the playwright George S. Kaufman.
Dr. Birnbaum did mention that in the past born-differents were seen as almost taking part in pornography, but now many of those people are seen as the rock-stars of the industry. What do you think about that? It depends on what point in the past you are referring to, remember the winners write the history books so when the freak show fell out of favor of course it was either written off or erased.

Photo courtesy of Jason Black.

I’m pretty sure there aren’t any, but do you know of any people who have cognitive/developmental disabilities who are performing still in the United States or other parts of the world?

Yes Mike Tyson. I say that without sarcasm. Link to his cognitive/developmental report.  Link to his Broadway show.

What are your thoughts on the past performers with microcephaly (pinheads)?
No thoughts. As a child I did have a sitter who had microcephaly.