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 “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?

Abby and Brittany: Conjoined Twins, TLC, and the Sideshow

TLC Promo

No discussion of the similarities and differences between TLC programming and antiquated sideshows is complete without a post about Abby and Brittany.  Abigail and Brittany Hensel were born in 1990, and they are dicephalic parapagus twins, which means they are conjoined twins.  The “interesting” part of their condition is that they each have a separate head, but their bodies are joined.  To some, without closer investigation, this almost makes it appear that they are “a two-headed girl.”

SO many questions!

When Abigail and I saw the promo for this show, we knew immediately that we would HAVE to watch it.  Even though the preview was sensationalized, as they usually are, we were intrigued and had SO MANY QUESTIONS.  The obvious: how does one control each side? how do they attend college classes? how do they drive? what parts of their bodies do they share?  And the questions you want to know, but are afraid to ask: What if one of the girls was a lesbian and the other was straight? How do intimate relationships work when there’s no privacy? How does privacy even work?   Fortunately, the show does a lot of answering of these questions through interviews with friends and the girls themselves.

TLC’s website really only provides videos and images from the show, and not much real outside information about the women.[1]  Gawker published a very informative article about the girls.[2]  One quote in particular is very relevant:

“So basically the show exists so we can oggle these girls in private? I thought TLC was supposed to be The Learning Channel. What the hell happened?
This is one of the stalest observations a person can make on the internet but, since you brought it up, TLC’s (alleged) downward spiral began with the program Jon and Kate Plus 8… From there, we moved to 19 Kids & CountingToddlers & Tiaras, and now the apex of observational learning Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. The criticism that TLC isn’t doing enough to educate its viewers is a weak one, because, if you really wanted to explore the world of science, you wouldn’t rely on the folks who brought you A Wedding Story to do it. Anyway, look at all you’ve learned about conjoined twins so far today.” (full article at:

Anatomical Answers!

The article also asks and answers:

“What happens if one of the girls doesn’t want to have sex with a man but the other one does — is that rape? Do they have to buy separate tickets if they see a 3-D movie, because they require one seat but two sets of glasses? What if Abby had failed her driving test but Brittany had passed it? What if one of them is sleepy and the other one is wide awake? Since they have two stomachs but one bladder do they have to pee all the time? What if one had graduated high school but the other had failed all her classes? What happens if they have to throw up?

Who knows? They aren’t doing press. But now you’ve uncovered the real fun of Abby & Brittany: coming up with an endless list of questions you will never ask them in real life, because it would be rude.”[3]

Conjoined Twins: Now and Then

Chang and Eng Bunker

Another set of conjoined twins that I have studied helped to inform many of these questions and provide more.  Chang and Eng Bunker were born in 1811 in Siam (get it – Siamese twins? – but seriously, please don’t call conjoined twins this [racist]).  Rather than being conjoined to the degree that Abby and Brittany are, the Bunkers were connected only by a narrow band of flesh at chest-level.

Advertisement for Show

Robert Hunter, a British merchant, “discovered” the twins and paid their family to allow the boys to be exhibited as a curiosity during a world tour. The men toured the world to give demonstrations and lectures, and they were among P.T. Barnum’s “curiosities” that included Tom Thumb,  Native American dancers, giants, and albinos.  After a successful career of traveling, the men settled in North Carolina, bought a farm, and married sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates.   To answer the question, YES the men did have children: 21 between them.  They died in 1874 within 3 hours of each other.[4]

Exhibit at Mutter Museum

Another interesting note is that a cast of the men’s bodies can still be seen on exhibit at the Mutter Museum in Philadephia.

How might things be different if the Bunkers lived now, or alternately, if the Hensels lived in the 19th Century?  Would the Bunkers have a television show on TLC, or would the Hensel twins take part in traveling sideshows?

One similarity between the two sets of twins is their fame (sought after or not), due to their “differences”.  It is unclear whether or not the Bunker twins were presented as and appreciated as actual people with feelings and lives, or if they were simply curiosities.  While many people might be attracted to TLC’s Abby and Brittany initially because of their condition, if one watches the show they will get an education about the girls, their lives, and their daily experiences.  At least TLC can be commended for that.

Exploiting people who are “different”?

Human “Freak Show” tent

In my research, I recently came across an article that is really informative to this discussion.  Annie Delin’s article, “Buried in the footnotes: the absence of disabled people in the collective imagery of our past” looks at disability in museums, and in side shows.[5]  Delin says, “In modern society, we no longer actively condone the showing of ‘different’ people as freaks.  …. Yet we do perpetuate the acceptability of staring and pointing whenever we allow a picture of a small person or someone with a disfiguring condition to be displayed without identity and context.”[6]

DOES modern society really shy away from exhibiting people who are “different” as freaks?  Even if no one is outright calling TLC or other network programming a freakshow or a sideshow, are we de-humanizing people through these exhibitions?

I do think that the TLC show Abby and Brittany does manage to show that the women ARE real people, with feelings, and lives, and success, rather than just displaying them for their differences.

TLC and the Sideshow

An article on puts out a seemingly accurate call for a new show saying, “if you’re a pair of pregnant redneck conjoined teen twins who are former child beauty queens and own a cake shop that caters only to little Amish people, call TLC, because your dream of being on The Soup every week can come true!”[7]

Too true.

[3] Ibid.

[5] Annie Delin, ““Buried in the footnotes: the absence of disabled people in the collective imagery of our past” in Museums, Society, and Inequality edited by Richard Sandell. New York: Routledge, 2002

[6] Ibid, 89.

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!

Sensitivity and Awareness at Your Museum or Cultural Organization

This blog has been a long time coming, but I have finally found some free time to get the blog back up and running.  Expect more this summer from former professors and students, a recap of my trip to New York City, dissertation and research updates, and more!

Seriously, best conference ever.

This past March I had the opportunity to once again attend my favorite yearly meeting, the Tennessee Association of Museums Conference.  Even better, I was a scholarship recipient, which was an incredible honor.  To top it all off, I also chaired a session called, “Your Museum: Compliance, Awareness, Sensitivity, and Outreach” with some other folks from Middle Tennessee State University’s PhD in Public History program.  My talk was on, “Sensitivity and Awareness – Steps to Take for Successful Connections.”

This talk stemmed from conversations about my dissertation and research in the residency colloquium I attended last academic year.  The idea is that museums are meeting requirements for ADA, but they are generally only doing the minimum as opposed to branching out to offer more accessible programs to diverse groups.  Before any radical changes can take place, I believe that museum staff must be trained on sensitivity and awareness techniques to use when working with disabled populations.  I wanted to share a few high points from my talk here online so others can take advantage of these options.

As I have said before,  in the residency colloquium in the PhD program, we were required to read selections based around each of our interests and research.  Prior to this, I had already decided that disability and museums would be integral parts of my dissertation research.  The class instructor took this into consideration while choosing our readings.  The special issue of the Public Historian, from Spring 2005, was all about disability and museums.  The articles range in subject matter from FDR to visually impaired visitor’s experiences at a museum to reviews of websites and books.

Presenting at TAM

Striking in this selection of readings were the first-hand accounts of people with disabilities and their experiences.  A lack of compassion, sensitivity, and even awareness was very present in their stories.  This led to discussions about what museums can do to welcome more people.  Also missing from the literature was the inclusion of those who have learning, cognitive, or developmental disabilities.  Since the implementation of ADA so much of the focus has been on wheelchair accessibility.  Accessibility for the sight and hearing impaired has also been embraced, but in many cases those with learning disabilities are forgotten.

As anyone who works in museums or at historical sites, many museums are small and short-staffed.  Resources and training are not always readily available for all staff and volunteers.  Through this blog post I hope to give some ideas and thinking points for small museums and staff members.

Here are some interesting numbers:

  • There are over 500 known disabilities. Common disabilities include: vision, hearing, speech, physical, and developmental.
  • From 2009 to 2010, the percentage of the total US population with a disability grew by 2.0 percentage points (American Association of People with Disabilities)
  • Currently around 10 per cent of the total world’s population, or roughly 650 million people, live with a disability (
  • There are more than 50 million people with disabilities in the United States today.
  • Many of those 50 million are elderly (a large percentage of museum-going population)

As the AAM reminds us, “access is not just a legal and moral obligation. Changes that increase access for those with disabilities can mean more visitors, since most people don’t attend museums alone. In other words, enabling one person with a disability to visit often brings at least two people to the museum.” (

Here are some important tips on what to do when you have visitors at your museum who have a disability.  Some of these things may seem to be common sense, but they are still important to remember in your everyday interactions with visitors.

In general, people with disabilities are like everyone else, so try to treat them like anyone else.  Think through the other person’s mind – can they see your subtle, headshakes or nods?  Eye movements?  Can they hear sarcasm or inflections of your voice?  Can they reach where you are?

Using your words:

  • Always put the person first. Example: “the person who is blind” and not “the blind person”.  Emphasize abilities.
  • Don’t underestimate people with disabilities.
  • Avoid labels. Never refer to people by their disability. For example, don’t say “the handicapped, the crippled, the blind”, etc.
  • People sometimes use negative language without realizing it. Make sure to emphasize the positive.


  • Speak directly to the person with a disability rather than through a companion or interpreter who may be present.
  • Find the best way to communicate. The person may want to sign, fingerspell, lip read, or write notes.
  • Speak normally-don’t yell or exaggerate.
  • If you offer assistance to a person with a disability, wait until the offer is accepted, then listen or ask for instructions. Assisting without permission may cause serious injury.
  • Offer to shake hands or trade business cards when introduced. People with limited hand use or an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Offering the left hand is an acceptable form of greeting.
  • Use body language. It offers important clues about what you are saying.

Visual Disabilities:

  • Security guards should know how to accommodate the needs of blind patrons, and should be able to direct them clearly and helpfully
  • Always identify yourself and others who may be with you when meeting someone with a vision impairment.
  • Never touch someone with vision impairment unless they know you are there.
  • Offer your arm. Don’t propel or lead a person with a vision impairment.
  • If you meet someone with a guide dog never distract, pet, or feed the dog. If a service animal is distracted it may inhibit the service animal from doing its job.


  • Do not lean or hang on someone’s wheelchair. Bear in mind that people with physical disabilities treat their wheelchairs as extensions of their bodies.
  • Never patronize people who use wheelchair by patting them on the head.
  • Never move adaptive equipment outside the person’s reach.
  • Place yourself at eye level when speaking to someone who uses a wheelchair, scooter, crutches, etc.
  • Prevent a strained neck by standing a few feet away when talking to an individual in a wheelchair.


  • People with mental impairment learn slowly and have a harder time using their knowledge.
  • Be clear and concise – don’t use complex sentences or difficult words.
  • Don’t talk down to the individual – in other words don’t baby talk. This won’t make it easier to understand.
  • Don’t take advantage of the individual. Never ask a person with a mental impairment to do anything that you wouldn’t ask a friend to do.
  • Be understanding and patient. People with mental impairments are often aware of their limitations, but they have the same needs and desires as everyone else.

The basics

The Association of Science-Technology Centers has a great website devoted to options for museums.  Below is a list from their website,

  • Become familiar with museums’ legal obligations.
  • Talk to people in your community. Conduct focus groups and surveys, form advisory groups , build relationships with people with disabilities.
  • Consult with community organizations for and about people with disabilities.
  • Call or visit other institutions that have services like those you want to offer.
  • Conduct an access survey
  • Consider what resources you already have available in your museum.
  • Provide staff and volunteer training about interacting with people with disabilities. Additionally, staff and volunteers need to know what services and equipment the museum provides, where to find them, and how to maintain and operate them.
  • Make high priority and low cost changes in accordance with your plan.
  • Seek national and local funding for high cost changes.

Other ideas include creating audio tours, written/captioned options for films or auditory parts of your museum, and creating picture books for inaccessible areas of the museum for those who cannot physical visit certain areas.  Accommodations can often be easily made,  and museums can also adapt presentation techniques (such as being sure the speaker is always visible to those with hearing loss, being aware that people who are blind may need visual information described verbally to them).

I’m sure many of you have ideas and ways that you have adapted.. please feel free to discuss and share these in the comments section!

Successful Accessible Museums

The Museum Access Consortium in NYC consists of representatives from various museum departments throughout the New York City Metropolitan area and members and representatives of the disability community. Members of MAC exchange information, ideas and resources and provide a network of mutual support. Museums such as,

MOMA, The Jewish Museum, Tenement Museum, and Transit Museum have taken advantage of the MAC and are in the process of working on great accessible programming.  I was lucky enough to visit these museums last month, and will be posting a blog on these museums, staff, and programs in the near future.

Homestead Museum in Los Angeles County, CA is also working on programs for adults with dementia and programs for people who reside at adult living centers.  The Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y is a historic home with a small staff.  However, they initiated physical changes, including making a restroom accessible, adding ramps, renovating obstacles in pathways and acquiring county money to replace the elevator. Their full story can be found on the AAM Website –

Additional Resources:

For those of you in the Nashville area, information about our upcoming workshop is available below:

Middle Tennessee State University’s Public History Program Presents:

 Disability and Your Cultural Organization: Sensitivity and Strategies for Going Beyond ADA

 Saturday November 3, 2012

9AM – 3 PM

at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

 Morning Sessions Include

 Keynote Speaker:

Krista Flores, Program Specialist, Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program

 Additional Speakers:

Karen Wade, Director of Homestead Museum, Los Angeles County, California

Dr. Lisa Pruitt, Middle Tennessee State University

 Panel of various experts in the fields of education, museums, special education, recreation and more!

 Afternoon Breakout sessions will include case studies, information about specific issues, and think-tank opportunities.

 Registration Fees will include lunch and all workshop materials

 Please email Katie Stringer at for more details, questions, or registration information