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.

Eleven Questions for Museum Bloggers

Quick break from travel to the museum world again!

Playing with an 80'sversion of a museum interactive at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, TN

Playing with an 80’sversion of a museum interactive at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, TN

Last month the Berlin Museum of Natural History launched a series of eleven questions for museum bloggers on Museum Blogger Day.  Max van Balgooy, museum consultant extraordinaire and blogger over at Engaging Places posted his answers, and I’m following his example.  As Max said on his blog, he “received the list of questions from Gretchen Jennings of Museum Commons, who received it from Linda Norris at the Uncatalogued Museum, who received it from Jamie Glavic at Museum Minute, who received it from Jenni at Museum Diary, who received it from the Museum Things blog at Natureskundemuseum.   I suppose this might be a new version of the old “chain letter,” but more fun and with no dire consequences if you fail to participate (and of course, the questions were modified along the way, just like a telephone tree).”

1. Who are you and what do you like about blogging?

I am a person interested in all aspects of history, museums, public history, travel, tourism, and so much more.  I wrote a whole blog about how I got to this place in my life, which is available here.  I have a PhD in Public History, I’m the Executive Director of a historic house in Knoxville, Tennessee, I wrote a book about education and access at historic houses and sites for people with special needs and disabilities, and I love goats.  I love blogging, especially post-graduation, because it keeps me active in the field, thinking about issues, and learning more about topics I’m interested in.  It also connects me to some pretty fantastic people out there in the museum world.

2. What search terms lead people to your blog?

Ever since Abby and Tori did guest blogs as part of a series on TLC programming as the modern sideshow, Honey Boo Boo is a major search term.  Also, ancient aliens and variations on that, thanks to a blog about the horrid abomination that is the “History” Channel.  My name is also a popular search term, which is sufficiently creepy. Here is a chart of the top search terms:


3. How long have you been blogging, and has your blog changed in any way since you began it?  How?  

My very first blog was posted in July of 2010, soon after I graduated from the University of Memphis.  I began blogging at the suggestion of the esteemed Dr. Robert Connolly, who served as one of the greatest museum mentors I could ever ask for.  Looking back at my earliest blogs, I started with some reflections on programs I had worked on, starting the PhD Program, updates, conferences, and random musings on topics related to my interests.  Things have not changed too much, other than my recent shift towards travel and tourism on the heels of my first trip to Europe.

4. Which post on your blog is your personal favorite?

I’ve REALLY loved all of my reflections on my trip to Britain and Ireland earlier this year.  I also like the posts about Freaks and Sideshows, and of course, my wonderful bashing of Ancient Aliens.  The TLC series was a ton of fun, too.

5. If you had a whole week just to blog: which subject would you like to thoroughly research and write about?

I would travel throughout Europe and review all of the museums, of course!  Alternatively, I have a pile of drafts started on various museum topics such as effective tour guides, disaster planning, and a guest blog about art museums by my wonderful fiance.  I really would love to do more about art museums and my intense feelings about them.  All of this will be coming up in the next several months as I find the time to write.

6.  If you could ask anyone to be a guest blogger, who would that be?

Ryan Gosling!



Or Tim Gunn!


Or really, the REAL Dream: David Tennant! (David – CALL ME!)


7. Share your favorite photo that you took at a museum or historic site.

At the Tower of London, near the scaffold memorial, December 31, 2013

At the Tower of London, near the scaffold memorial, December 31, 2013

8.  What was the last museum you visited and what was the experience like?

Other than my workplace or quick jaunts to places around town, the last place I REALLY visited was the Natural History Museum in New York City.  I had a lot of feelings about it, so I can’t really describe the experience right now other than in the most basic terms: disappointing, overwhelming, enraging (mostly the queue process at Will Call), and just kinda meh.  I’ll elaborate more later…

9.  If time and money were no object, what museum [or historic site – KS edit] would you most like to visit?

ALL the museums.  Namely: Museum of London, Westminster Abbey (I cried when I saw the outside), Field Museum in Chicago… back to the Smithsonian, Mount Vernon again, NYC Museum…. I need to think on this more and make a list.

10. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from a failure? [KS Edit – From a success?]

Communication is key!  Most problems are caused by a lack of communication or a simple miscommunication.  Alternatively, good communication and partnership can lead to some of the best successes – any project I’ve worked on with a museum that has been successful was due to the partnerships and teamwork of dedicated individuals.

11.  If you could work anywhere, what museum would you like to work in?

Tough question – ANY museum in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, or England!

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?

A Very Important Announcement


I finished my dissertation, “Enriching the Public History Dialogue: Effective Museum Education Programs for Audiences with Special Needs”, defended it successfully, and got all those signatures!  After a final edit session and a short walk across a stage, I will officially be Dr. Katie Stringer!

Also, I just updated my CV on here to include some new work, a post-doc fellowship, my first “real” publication, projects, presentations, and more!  Check it out at: ‎

More detailed updates and blogs coming soon…

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: .

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:

You may email the registration form to me at, 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

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. 

Coney Island, USA

Coney Island, USA Museum and Sideshow Building

After a week of culture and exploring New York, and a wonderful morning at the Transit Museum, I headed over to Brooklyn and all the way to the end-of-the-line: Coney Island.  I arrived early to get a Nathan’s hot dog and to wander around the board walk area.  Then I walked over to the Coney Island Museum where I was to meet Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum to discuss the display and performance of people with disabilities in sideshows.  This blog is a segue into a new series of blogs on exploitation, sideshow history, disability history, and more.

Dr. Birnbaum is on the Board of Coney Island USA and also a physician who has been studying sideshow performers with physical disabilities.  Additionally, he is a Pediatrician with HEAT (Health and Education Alternatives for Teens) of which he is the founder, director, and physician.  His specialty is treatment of HIV+ youth, and he provides medical care for HIV+ and at-risk children, including LGBT youth.  More information about this fascinating work is available at HEAT’s website,  Dr. Birnbaum has also studied Sideshow Performers, Congenital Malformations, Disabilities and the Medical Community.  This is what we met to talk about on a Thursday in May at the Coney Island Museum.

Coney Island Beach, 1938

Coney Island of today is very different from that of the late 1800s and pre-War era of the twentieth century.  Luna Park and Dreamland are no longer visited daily by the masses, and the beach was empty while I was there, which is a stark contrast to the images of Coney Island from the past.  However, there are still some organizations and small businesses that continue to share the history of this fascinating place and preserve that history for future generations.

One of the biggest attractions in the past at Coney Island, and in circuses and traveling exhibits throughout the world, was the sideshow.  Many times, children with seemingly strange differences were taken from their families to travel the world to be gawked at by tourist paying a nickel to see the strange and unknown.

Today, Coney Island still operates one of the only sideshows in the country.  Their website proclaims, “SIDESHOWS BY THE SEASHORE is the last permanently housed place in the USA where you can experience the thrill of a traditional ten-in-one circus sideshow. They’re here, they’re real and they’re alive! Freaks, wonders and human curiosities! “  More information is available at:  Dr. Birnbaum, as mentioned above, has studies sideshow, disability, and medicine, so he was a great source to speak with regarding my research.

When we arrived, they had just wrapped up their annual “Congress of Curious Peoples” (I am currently taking donations so that I can attend next year!), and Dr. Birnbaum told me about the 2012 Inductees into the Sideshow Hall of Fame and his nomination of Seal-o the Sealboy in the Born Different category.  This is the kind of information I was looking for in my research as opposed to the self-inflicted “freaks” that dominate shows today!

Dr. Birnbaum and I discussed many aspects of sideshows and people with disabilities, and he told me about several people he knows who do participate in sideshows or other types of shows to raise awareness about disability issues.  One example is Matt Fraser, a “seal boy” or person with phocomalia, who is a disability rights activist who uses his disability in his act.  He uses the disability to make the audience uncomfortable for laughing and having fun, since almost all people are conditioned not to.

He explained to me that in the past, the disability community often viewed people who performed to be taking place in something equal to pornography.  Today, however, many in this population see it as a rock’n’roll career.


I’m interested in the “born different” people from the past, but most especially those with cognitive developmental delays, medically called those with mental retardation.  This will be spoken about much more in my research to come.  I have come across several examples of this such as Zip and Pip, and Schlitzy, who were referred to as “pinheads”, and Zip the “What is it?” who may or may not have had microcephaly.

My next blog will feature a Q&A with one of the Coney island Performers, Black Scorpion.  The website describes him as, “a human oddity known for his bizarre & surreal stage performances, from future Austin, Texas. He is unlike any other performer, for he was not born of our time like you or I. When you see him perform you will understand how nature’s beauty takes shape in many different forms. Witness his attempts to change preconceived negatives into a positives throughout space & time.”  You can read more about him at:

two-headed deer souvenir

The museum has a bar and a great giftshop (also available online at: with Coney Island beer as a specialty and incredible one-off art such as my pink and green two-headed deer.

I encourage you to become a member of Coney Island USA to help build this area of New York back to a semblance of what it used to be.  The Unofficial Mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, and the wonderful folks at Coney Island, USA (the non-profit arts organization) are doing great things at this historic site, and they can do much more with your donation.  For obvious reasons, I would love to be able to be a “Sideshow Professa,” and who wouldn’t?

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Programming at The Transit Museum

As I mentioned in my last blog, my trip to the Transit Museum in Brooklyn, run by the Transit Authority, was one of my most favorite parts of my time in New York City.

How cool is this entrance??

On Thursday, still excited from my wonderful meeting with Lori, I headed over to Brooklyn to visit the Transit Museum (and the Pierogi Gallery later that morning, AND some good Vinnie’s Pizza, AND THEN Coney Island!).  After a weird Dunkin Donuts experience and walking the wrong way for a while because the NYPD cop on the corner lied and said the museum was right down that road, I finally found the entrance to the Transit Museum.

I descended down the steps into a subway station that has been cut off from the running lines.  At the “ticket booth” I asked for Lynette Morse, and then we went down to the tracks for my meeting with the educator.  As I mentioned before, the site contains many trains from throughout the subway history that visitors can go through and explore.

I had heard a lot about the opportunities that the Transit Museum offers to children with special needs from other museums I had met with throughout the week, from the MAC website, and from Lori the previous day.   I was excited to see and hear first-hand about these offerings.  Lynette and I chose a train car to sit in and began our conversation.

When these programs first got started, the museum had a goal to focus on better programming for the audiences that were already coming to visit the museum.  There were many special education groups visiting, but there wasn’t any special programming in place yet.  Students were visiting to study New York history and compare the past to the present.  This museum is perfect for the students to be immersed in history, since it is an actual historical site.

Many of the older student groups that were coming to the museum has more severe disabilities and they were there to learn life skills such as how to ride the subway.  Since the trains there are in a safe environment, don’t move, and are similar to the “real” trains in the city, this is the perfect place for students to learn.   Visitors to the independent living program would come to the museum multiple times to learn about safety and proper behavior on a train.  For instance, students were taught not to stare at people, how to sit or stand depending on the other people on the train, where to sit, how to interact with other people and more.  One of my favorite anecdotes about this program is the involvement of the staff.  During this program, many staff members participate as “angry New Yorker subway riders.”  They even have staff act as panhandlers to teach the participants how to interact (i.e. – don’t reach in and take money from the panhandlers’ cups).  This is a great example of a museum really interacting with its community not only to tell the history of the site, but to also help the visitors with their needs.

Another opportunity the site has is an after-school program called Subway Sleuths.  This program meets once a week for ten weeks and is offered to students with autism.  The program helps to build social and communication skills while also teaching some history.  Subway Sleuths teaches the history of transit, electricity and science, and more.  This is EXACTLY what I was looking for in my research, and this is a great model for other sites!  The students have the opportunity, in the safe subway station environment to put their hands on the history.  They also learn social skills by using historical objects and situations.

The museum works with special education teachers and speech and language pathologists in addition to their museum educators.  Their programs are very popular with around 8 classes coming to the museum per week.  The museum employs one educator to work with students in the 4th grade and above and another to teach pre-K to 3rd grade.   The educators also have degrees in Special Education as well as museum education backgrounds.

Subway Station Exhibits

The museum is also not just modifying existing programs for special needs students but creating all new programming opportunities.  One program uses a visual magnetic board with images.  This can help students to build on what they already know.  In the train cars, students will look for five things such as lights, seats, doors, advertisements, holds, or other features.   They will then compare and contrast these characteristics in trains from various time periods.  If they start at the newest train and work their way back, they will realize that as they go back in time there is no longer air conditioning, plastic, etc.  This site is really perfect for immersion in history and being able to truly time-travel to see the changes.

In structuring tours for children with special needs, the educators saw that language was important.  Educators use the inquiry method: “is this train newer or older than the last train we were in?”  Thinking about using language in a particular way can be over-whelming.  Using declarative language can also be helpful in getting students to talk.  Educators might say, “This train looks really old to me!” to elicit responses from students telling what it is that they notice about the train.

Programs are evaluated by teachers and parents.  In the past, teachers were given a one page evaluation with a postage-paid envelope.  Unfortunately there was only about a 29% return rate of these evaluations.   Teachers are busy, as we all know, and sometimes evaluations can get lost in the slew of lesson plans, teaching, and being in the classroom.  Now the museum asks teachers to write bullet points to evaluate how children are doing and progressing, they ask the parents for feedback, and they make sure there are different goals for each child to meet.

Overall, this is one of the best museums I have been to.  The whole site is interactive, there are things to touch and climb on, visitors can pretend to drive a bus, hand out subway tickets, and go through old-timey turnstiles.  The museum even incorporates science and technology into the history through discussions of electricity and production.  I wish I had had more time to go through the museum and enjoy all aspects, but instead, I will post some pictures below from my adventures at the Transit Museum.

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Meeting with Lori Stratton, Educator and Consultant

Inside Grand Central

On Wednesday May 9th, I went to Grand Central Station to meet with Lori Stratton, a Special Education Museum Educator at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum and the Program Coordinator and Consultant for her company, It Takes a Village in New York City.   She has a degree in Recreational Therapy which provides a fresh look on museum program development.  It was a delight to meet Lori, who I instantly felt knew what I was thinking and what I wanted to do with my dissertation.  Lori has worked in museum education at several places around New York City, including the Transit museum (more about them in the next post!), and she has focused one bringing rec therapy and history to students with special needs.  Perfect!

After I spent a few minutes awkwardly looking around the station for Lori with her Intrepid staff jacket, we met and went to get coffee at a nice little café.

The part of the conversation that sticks out most clearly in my mind from our meeting is the discussion about HISTORY museums and historic sites and how they can reach out to students with special needs.  So many of the places working with this population are art museums, which is fabulous!  But why shouldn’t history museums embrace this population more widely?  At historic sites and in museums students can actually be immersed in the history, which is a great way for them to learn and get something out of the experience.  Anyone can look at art or historic objects online, but actually seeing it in person gives people an indescribable connection to that piece and its history.  Objects and artifacts are extremely powerful for telling stories; you can have someone as simple as an everyday serving platter and from that you can tell stories about that time period, the people who used it, how it was made, who made it and where, how it got where it was when it was found, and countless more stories that help people build a connection with the past.

Another thing that sticks out is the use of popular culture.  I’ve talked about using popular culture with college age students before, and the same theory goes with any student: find something to relate with them about whether it’s Captain America or the movie 300.  Popular culture can be key with any historic site; find your connections with super heroes, songs, video games, tv shows, etc.  History museums and exhibits can also relate history to everyday life, which is a good tip for all historic sites and museums at any time, really.  Drawing connections is one of the best ways that students learn in informal settings.

In her time at the Transit Museum, Lori helped to develop and present several programs for children with special needs, especially those with autism.  I’ll talk more about these in next week’s recap of my trip to that museum, but here are some highlights from our conversation.  The museum is in a now-unused subway station that has examples of train cars from the early 20th century to today.  This is a great environment for students to see the past and today right next to each other, and they have the opportunity to go inside the trains and see first-hand the differences and similarities.

Transit Museum train exhibits

The Transit Museum had several techniques for learning that I found fascinating.  One is that students are given paper to draw their observations; they could draw the different types of lighting fixtures, advertisements, seats, etc.  This especially gives students who are non-verbal a chance to communicate or ask questions.  Another activity used photographs of the trains and a timeline.  The educator would use the photos to match the old and the new and put them into order.  This also gives students who are non-verbal the chance to express themselves and what they learned on the tour as a sort of evaluative process.  Educators also gave teachers a checklist to evaluate what/of students were learning.

When working with students with special needs at any museum there are several things to keep in mind.  If your museum has 8 exhibits, for example, pick 3 or 4 t talk about and adapt the program that day to the student attention spans and interest.  Don’t necessarily go over specifics; keep the students moving and pay attention to their needs.  Lori explained that in her experience a 30 minute program is generally too long for a special needs audience  to be in one place in a museum unless engaged in an activity.  Depending on the age and diagnosis, you can still do an hour tour (longer is pushing it though) but the important thing to remember is to keep them moving.   There can be many distractions and struggles during these programs, so remember to stay flexible and be tuned into your audience.  Try to find a space in the museum that is quiet with few visual distractions to decrease external stimulus when speaking with the group.  Make sure this is also a safe environment for students to feel comfortable in to better their learning experience.  This is something that I will talk about much more extensively in my next blog about the Transit Museum and their life-skill programs.

Unless an educator invites you to!

As in any museum education program, having a tactile component is very important.  Having objects, whether they are authentic or reproductions, is important to the learning process.  Holding, seeing, touching these objects helps to build connections to the past and the curriculum at hand.

Lastly, we spoke about the importance of training all staff members at a museum, not just the educators.  It is important for security and janitorial staff to know the basics, such as not to touch a child with autism (or any child, really).  All staff should also know not to diagnose the children themselves (because it doesn’t matter), and not to judge the students in any way.   It is also important for all staff to know general basics of teaching children with special needs, especially to keep calm and flexible.

Some basic tips I wrote down from our meeting:

  • Remember that the students might be older but at a younger learning level.  Don’t take a first grade program to use with 7th grade students.
  • Special Education classrooms can have various levels of learners (like any classroom).  Remember to scale down the information intellectually but keep things socially the same as you would with any group of that age
  • Compare and Contrast with concrete facts is helpful (is this artifact from the past or present, why?)
  • You can NOT be rigid; educators in this field must be flexible and willing to adapt to the students’ needs
  • Keep the students moving and don’t talk too much!
  • Ask teachers before the field trip what their goals are for their students on this trip; what can the museum do for them?
  • Experiential learning is particularly important in this type of educational setting (for any student).
  • Engage the students in the past, and slip in curriculum

I enjoyed my meeting with Lori immensely, and I look forward to sharing more research ideas and information with her; she is a font of information and experience!  If you are in the Greater NYC area and are interested in learning more about consulting services that she offers, be sure to check out her website, It Takes a Village New York!