TLC as a Sideshow: Final Reflections

by Tori Warenik, Abigail Gautreau, and Katie Stringer

Tori: Over the last couple of months I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the type of TV we as a society are being shown. Specifically, it’s been interesting to think about TLC and their offerings. Before I began this investigation I had so many preconceived notions about American Gypsies and the Duggers that I just thought I would be presenting my initial biased, admittedly close-minded, view. Instead, after doing some research on both shows, it became simple to separate my personal thoughts about the people involved on the shows with the company who airs them.

I have come to find that TLC, much like other channels, panders to their viewers and is just as biased as the rest of us. During a time when TV networks pride themselves on their partisanship (ala Fox News, CSNBC, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) we shouldn’t be surprised this would be the case for TLC. And yet, given TLC’s brand is based on “The Learning Channel,” what are they actually teaching us? That it is utterly ridiculous to get married so young in the Gypsy culture (but they do it anyway) and completely acceptable to get married and have 19 kids if you’re able to sustain your family? In the end, people watch TLC for the entertainment, not an education which leaves me with one final, unanswerable, question: is this what TLC wants from their programming?

Abigail: First of all, I’d like to thank Katie and Tori for taking the time to have this slightly more formal conversation about this particular moment in popular culture. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts, and I had a lot of fun writing mine.

Sister Wives

This is probably the time when I should make some great announcement as to whether TLC is the modern sideshow, but since I’m still safely ensconced in the ivory tower, I’ll use my academic prerogative to challenge the question rather than simply answering it. If we consider the sideshow a place where people could safely view the “other,” than yes, TLC is certainly such a place. From the comfort of our own couches, we can sit back and wonder at the titillating questions raised by Abby and Brittany and Sister Wives or gawk at the lifestyle choices of the Duggers and Honey Boo Boo’s family. At the same time, TLC is hardly the only place where such programming exists. A&E, Nat Geo, and even The History Channel offer similar programs (after all, there are shows on hoarding on TLC and A&E, and Nat Geo’s Taboo often includes the same people featured on TLC’s My Strange Addiction or My Weird Obsession). If it’s a sideshow network, then it’s hardly alone.

Calling any program a sideshow has connotations of exploitation. Katie is far better suited to answering the question of whether sideshows are inherently exploitative in nature, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think the TLC programs are. One of the themes that came up again and again as I watched these shows and read about them was the extent to which the subjects control their own narratives. It’s also clear that these people are being compensated by TLC for appearing on the program, though it’s unclear how much money is involved in the agreements. Whatever we may think of these stars of “reality” television, I, for one, hope they are using their fame to their advantage.

She is full of wisdom.

It’s also probably worth a reminder that when we talk about popular culture, and especially about the stars of “sideshow” programming, we are really talking about ourselves. So whether you love Honey Boo Boo or just love to hate her, do yourself a favor and take a minute to think about why.

Katie: I’m so happy that after months of watching all of the TLC shows unfold before our very eyes the three of us were finally able to sit down an put together a blog series on our thoughts, questions, and ideas.  Thanks so much to Tori and Abby for participating!

As I’ve said before, this is a topic that I feel I could write about for each of the shows, probably multiple times.  Last night during the Sister Wives premiere (which Abby and I g-chatted through “Kody is such a fool!”) I saw promos for a show about the wives of Sin City and another about the Amish Mafia.  While is is really more fodder for the freakshow fire, I still do wonder how educational it is?

Since Abby and Tori summed up a lot of thoughts from this series, I can’t help but go back to the History Channel (as I always seem to do), which in the not too distant past did show documentaries about castles, Vikings, The “Dark” Ages (they weren’t that dark!!!), and of course, Hitler.  With the reality TV of Swamp People,  Mountain Men, and Hairy Bikers  it seems like they are focusing on the out-liers (and MEN) of society to draw visitors to see something weird or strange rather than actual history (ya know, from the past).  Yes, History is made every day, but aren’t there other channels for that?  What is the education value here?

The flip side to that is, what happens when educational programming actually occurs?  I will admit that How the States Got Their Shapes is educational and pretty fun, which proves that this is a possibility.   I also got a text from Abby that there is a new show called I Love the 1880s;  while this is an obvious play on the I love the... series on VH1, Abby pointed out that it isn’t about the 1880s.  I haven’t watched enough to know if this is something worth watching, educational, or just silly, but I’m not sure how well relating to teenagers is working out for the network with this theme.

Watch, as four white males survey the beautiful country that they built (seemingly) without the help of immigrants, non-whites, slaves, women, or anyone else that isn’t rich and gloriously ivory.

My last example from the History Channel of “actual educational programs” is the warning vibes that I got, just from the titles really, of Mankind: The Story of All of Us and The Men Who Built America.  The former may cover all genders and races, but the title seems to appeal to the male demographics the history channel reaches, and from the short clip that I watched (which enraged me), no women were shown. On principle I pretty much refuse to watch The Men Who Built America because I think traditional history classes and the “great books” and everything else in the world has covered the stories of the rich, white men more than enough.  Is this seriously a show?

Maybe I’m just irked that the History Channel caters so much to men and leaves women and minorities out of the picture so much; maybe I’m irked that this shows a skewed history; maybe this should become another blog series…

As I digress, I do think that television in general has replaced the sideshow, the freakshow, the circus, the gladiatorial ring, and so forth. As technologies and interests grow and change, perhaps this is simply the next evolution in the presentation of “the other” for entertainment and, in some small way, education.  People are always curious about the strange and the different, so it makes sense that there would be television programs that address that.  Perhaps society is more comfortable watching, asking questions, and maybe even silently (or vocally) judging the different people/lifestyles/choices/disabilities/whatever than they would be in a public forum.  My only remaining question is, how long will this trend continue on educational television networks?

Q&A With Tenement Museum Educator, Sarah Litvin

Sarah is an Education Associate at the Tenement Museum in New York City.  She was kind enough to speak with me through email and then in person during my time in NYC last May.  

What kinds of programs do you offer on a daily basis for student field trips?

Every day, we offer 3rd person building tours, Costumed Interpretation, and walking tours to students between 10 am and 1 pm.

What kinds of programs do you offer for people with special needs or disabilities?

Talking Tactile Tablet at the Visitor Center

We have a variety of built-in accessible features in our Visitors Center including a Talking Tactile Tablet and Induction loops. We also try to duplicate the ways we share information: through signs, audio cues, and tactile guides. We offer ASL tours conducted with no voice interpretation at the Museum for regularly scheduled public tours, and for school groups upon advanced request. We also offer touch tours for visitors who are blind/low vision for group of 5 or more with advanced notice. (They don’t have special programs that were created only for students with special needs; they do use modifications and very flexible educators to make programs for students with special needs successful. More information on their accessible programs is available on my previous blog, Accessibility and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and at their website.)

What disabilities or disorders do you focus on?

We focus on visitors who are blind/low vision, deaf/hard of hearing, and visitors who have mobility impairments. Increasingly, we’re building our toolkit to work with visitors with autism.

How do you feel about universal design?  Is that incorporated into your exhibit design or programming?

Tenement Museum Visitor Center

Universal Design is where it’s at! We’ve tried to incorporate it into new exhibit development and into our new Visitors Center. As I mentioned, we have induction loops for people who are hard of hearing installed at the ticketing and retail kiosks as well as the cinema space in our Visitors Center.  All of our films are open-captioned, and every tour begins with the educator offering an assistive listening device. We incorporate handling objects on all of our public tours, and have extra objects that we bring in for visitors who are blind or low vision. Our newest exhibits are the trickiest, since we are now working on creating a touch interactive exhibit. Designing it with Universal Design in mind has been extremely difficult. What works for one population sometimes makes it less accessible for another population.

How did you research for program development?

In terms of support, I rely on my Museum professionals in the New York City Museum Educator Roundtable, which as an Access Peer Group. I also rely on a series of advisors; our Access Advisory Committee is a group of consultants/advocates drawn from different disability communities in the area.

Do you have a specific staff member or set of staff members that you work with on this?

Until this year, Access has been an Education department initiative. However, this year I have started a cross-departmental Access Committee to make sure that we are thinking about these issues Museum-wide.

What resources did you use outside of the museum (community, consultants, experts, audience members)?

In addition to the folks cited above, we also do a lot of focus groups following programs. I’ll pretty much pick anyone’s brain that is willing to talk to me about what they do in their Museum.

How do you evaluate results of programming?

We have not done a comprehensive evaluation of our access programming. We measure our success through the high rate of return from schools for the deaf and blind. Often, these schools recommend our programming to other schools as well, which we take as a good sign.

What kind of sensitivity and awareness programs or training do you have for staff?

Every new staff member has Access Awareness training as part of their initial Museum orientation. Follow-up and additional training is available for staff as well. I try to send out as much information as I can about trainings I hear about in the city, and to bring speakers to talk on Access themes at least twice a year.

How do you advertise your programming to the public?

We post our offerings on our website and create fliers for upcoming events. I also collect e-mail addresses to e-blast former visitors about upcoming events and programs. We also use population-specific websites such as deafnyc and handson.org to publicize our events.

A few notes from our meeting:

The Tenement Museum takes a narrative approach; for instance, they can take an object like a sewing machine and construct the stories of many people through that one artifact.  In addition to other accessibility programs, the Tenement Museum offers offsite and distance learning for adults who find the museum uncomfortable or inaccessible.

Things to keep in mind when developing programs for children with special needs:

  • Think about how to make programs more concrete and object based.
  • Always set an agenda and make sure you list what is coming next so students feel comfortable.
  • The museum tried using stress balls for students to focus their energy.  The objects were printed with an historical object (sewing machine, objects from every day life) to focus questions and ideas.  There were some logistical problems with the stress balls, but they are working on preparing more options.
  • They also provide notebooks or sketchbooks as a visual option for students.  The children can use the notebook to sketch things that they think are important to focus their questions and energies.
  • Educators try to talk to the teacher before the visit to evaluate the students’ needs.  The Tenement Museum also has a checklist of behaviors that they can look at before visits to know what tactics might work with the student groups that come to visit the site.

A BIG thank you to Sarah and the Tenement Museum for allowing me to visit and see the museum programs first-hand.  I look forward to sharing my research with you and hearing more about your journey towards new programs.

Accessibility at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Tenement Museum Visitor Center

The Tenement Museum has been on my radar since taking Museum Studies classes with Dr. Robert Connolly and Dr. Leslie Luebbers at the University of Memphis.  It has been a beacon for community involvement and innovative programming, and it continues to be a pioneer for HISTORY museums in reaching out to populations with disabilities.  I was elated when Sara Litvin, an educator at the museum, responded to my emails and agreed to meet with me at the museum during my research trip.

In May, I ventured down to the Lower East Side and experienced 97 Orchard Street for myself.  The museum tells the stories of the people who lived in the tenement building on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  The mission of the museum is, “The Tenement Museum preserves and interprets the history of immigration through the personal experiences of the generations of newcomers who settled in and built lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood; forges emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhances appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.” (http://www.tenement.org/about.html)  This mission is seen throughout the museum and the programs and events offered by the museum.

97 Orchard interior stairs, from http://www.tenement.org/about.html

97 Orchard interior stairs, from http://www.tenement.org/about.html

Visitors may only visit by taking a guided tour of the building.  The museum offers many tours including, Hard Times, Sweatshop Workers, Irish Outsiders, and Exploring 97 Orchard Street.  They also offer school group tours, and community involvement opportunities.

I attended the Sweatshop Workers tour on my visit to the museum.  It was a rainy, overcast day when I visited, which seemed a fitting atmosphere for visiting this historic site.  We began by walking up the steps of the tenement at 97 Orchard Street into a dark hall.  The tour group then climbed the steps, holding on to the original banister that so many people in the past had held before us.  We continued on to the Levine family apartment, which was used not only for living, but also for running the family’s garment industry business.

Photo by Jacob Riis of the garment industry and tenement life

We looked at primary documents related to the neighborhood, garment industry, and reforms, and also looked at the artifacts and furnishing that were typical to tenement family rooms.  Next we went to the Rogarshevskys apartment to learn about the Jewish family and their struggles with keeping the Sabbath while their daughters were employed in garment factories that required them to work on their Holy Days.

Standing in the same building where these people from the past lived and worked, looking at the artifacts they used each day, and hearing the sounds outside the tenement evoked feelings that wouldn’t be possible in another location or artificial setting.  This brings up the question of, how do people with special accessibility needs experience this site to the same degree as those who are at the physical location?

Accessible options in the visitor center

The accessibility section of the museum website offers touch tours for people with sight impairments and sign language tours for people with hearing impairments.  The orientation film is captioned for those with hearing impairments, and braille and large print versions of primary sources are also available upon request. Additionally, in the Visitor Center, there is an “Accessible Learning Center” which includes a talking tablet and a tablet with a raised façade of the main building and floor plans for people with sight impairments to “see.” I really enjoyed the tactile tablet, in spite of being able to see the site and the building.  It explains various aspects of the museum that weren’t explained on my tour.  This is yet another example of the positives of universal design… the product is designed for those with disabilities, but the entire population can benefit from it.  I can also see this as an interactive that (supervised) children could enjoy when not being utilized by the intended population.

The “talking tablet” with raised facade and floor plan

The historic building offers many challenges to people with disabilities, especially those with physical disabilities or difficulties.  The front building is accessed by several steep steps to the front door, and once inside, visitors are greeted by the original, old wooden staircase which must be traversed to experience the guided tour.  The website does offer other opportunities for those using wheelchairs or other implements, including, a new exhibit opening in 2012 called, “Shop Life”, which will explore the many businesses housed at 97 Orchard Street. This will be the Museum’s first-ever wheelchair-accessible exhibit at 97 Orchard Street. The exhibit is still under construction at this time, but updates are available on their blog, including this one about construction progress.  The event called, “Tour the Neighborhood” is wheelchair accessible, and during the winter, the “Foods of the Lower East Side” is held in a wheelchair accessible room.   Additionally, the Visitors Center is has universally designed elevators and restrooms on the ground level.

Front of the historic building

There is also a “virtual tour” which benefits not only people with disabilities that can not visit the historic building, but really anyone who wants to experience the site without a visit to New York City.  This tour is available on their blog at: http://www.tenement.org/Virtual-Tour/index_virtual.html

More information about accessible features at the Tenement Museum are available online by clicking this link.   Really, there is a ton of information on their website and blog, and I could spend hours research and telling you all about it.  I’m not going to do that, but you should check it out!!

The website does not address programs for children with special needs (which is central to my research), but in my discussions with Sara at the museum, I did learn a lot about the opportunities they are taking advantage of and fine-tuning to reach that audience.  In general, their programs are modifications of the programs that are already in place rather than all-new programs developed for students with special needs.  The next blog post I will publish will be a Q&A on museum programs and disability with Sara Litvin from the Tenement Museum.

Accessibility at the Jewish Museum, NYC

When I started researching museums that are working extensively with accessibility, especially accessibility for people with cognitive, developmental, or learning disabilities, I was fortunate to find the Museum Access Consortium of New York City.  This was one of the main reasons I chose New York City as my main research hub; there is a huge concentration of museums, and the citizens of the metro area value and support museums to a greater extent than many other areas of the country.  The MAC website led me to several different museum websites where I was able to learn about programs available to people with special needs.

The Jewish Museum

The first museum I visited was the Jewish Museum at 5th Avenue and 92nd Street, which is principally an art museum.  There I met with Dara Cohen, the School Programs Coordinator.  The museum offers several types of programs for people with special needs including: access school programs,  visitors with sight impairments, hearing impairments, dementia, and learning or developmental disabilities.  The museum also works with all general access groups including groups with autism, emotional disturbances, and more.

Our discussion focused primarily on their programs for learning and developmental disabilities.  The Jewish Museum adapted their current programs for special needs groups that cater to groups with fewer children.  The museum has specific access educators and hopes to train all educators sometime soon.  Educators contact the school teacher in advance and talk with the teacher to adapt the programming; this provides more avenues for participation by the students.  Dara made it clear that even with planning, there is still a lot of “on your feet” teaching and critical thinking involved with presenting programs to children with special needs.

Accessibility at the Jewish Museum

Being an art museum, the programs are very visual; they have a studio art component for all elementary age groups and access groups of all ages.  For participation they might pick out a shape from the art piece and hold it, look at it, make the shape with their body, count the times the shape appears, etc.

The museum also holds  Sunday Workshops 4 times per year, that are open to the whole family, not just students.  The audience is generally people with learning and development disabilities. This program was adapted from MOMA and Met offerings that were changed to fit the Jewish Museum.  Dara estimated that 95% of students who attended these workshops have autism, a small percentage have Down Syndrome, and the rest of the percentage is made up of other disabilities or multiple disabilities.  In the morning, the workshop is set up for children ages 5-17, which generally seems to skew to the 5-12 age group.  The afternoon is for 18+ adults.   Tours are led by an access educator, and they have gallery and studio time for a total time of 1-1.5 hours.

Kehinde WIley, Napoleon leading the army over the alps, 2005

A recent example of a Sunday workshop activity was done in conjunction with the Kehinde Wiley exhibit.  The group spends half an hour in the gallery with the works of art, and the gallery guide engages all members of the family with the art and subject.  Wiley’s art is generally a African American male subject in traditional portrait form with an elaborate backgrounds which are inspired by Jewish paper cut-outs.  In the studio, the family has a photocopy of one of the subjects that they can place on different backgrounds to explore how background, color, and shape can change the mood and expression of the art.  In the studio, the family creates a paper cut out from butcher paper that they can use as their own background for a family portrait taken in the studio.  Parental involvement is important at these workshops, and the museum wants to expand into a family day event with school partnerships.  Attendance at the workshops varies, but including the family (siblings, parents of the special needs child) there are usually 15-20 people in attendance, with 7-8 of the attendees being the special needs child/adult.  These programs are fully funded through grants, and they are free for the families.

Dara is responsible for all access educator training, and the group of educators meet 4-5 times a year to duscuss teaching strategies about specific art pieces, listen to talks by consultants to help on certain things such as dementia, general management, strategies, different disabilities, and more.

The Jewish Museum started creating these programs to expand and diversify their audiences.  They looked at who was coming to visit the museum, and then explored how they could better serve them.  It seems as if art museums have an easier time at adapting programs and drawing in the special needs audience.  One reason for this might be that art museums are more about experimenting with concepts and the abstract.  Concepts at history museums are somewhat more challenging to adapt.

Some tips that the Jewish Museum shared when working with special needs audiences are:

  • Sometimes open-ended questions can be very abstract.  If students are struggling to respond verbally to open-ended questions, try asking more concrete questions or narrowing the focus (i.e. focusing on a particular part of the painting like the figure or the figure’s clothing or the sky instead of asking general questions like “what’s going on in this painting”)
  • Sometimes yes/no questions can be useful, despite the fact that museum education courses usually stress the importance of asking open-ended questions.  Yes/no questions should be used in conjunction with open-ended questions, and with other activities that allow students to participate non-verbally (i.e. through sketching, movement exercises, etc.)
  • Giving the students the language to use helps (is this hard or soft?)
  • Reaching out to accessibility groups benefits other groups and the museum as a whole (wheelchair ramps can be used by people with strollers or knee problems)
  • Sensitivity and awareness training is important – educators are not the only ones who need to be trained
  • Security guards need to have some level of training to be comfortable working with people is disabilities.

I had a wonderful time at the Jewish Museum (in spite of being 10 minutes late because of a subway mishap), and I want to thank the museum and Dara Cohen for having me and discussing their programs openly with me.

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 (http://www.disabled-world.com)
  • 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.” (http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_JA06_richner-allaccess.cfm?renderforprint=1)

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.

Interacting:

  • 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.

Wheelchair/Physical:

  • 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.

Mental:

  • 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, http://www.astc.org/resource/access/index.htm

  • 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 – http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_JA06_richner-allaccess.cfm.

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 mkatestringer@gmail.com for more details, questions, or registration information

Popular Culture and Public History

Getting ready to present my panelists

I recently ventured to New Orleans to present at the Popular and American Culture Associations in the South annual conference. Rebecca,  another PhD Student at MTSU, and Dr. McCormack, one of my professors who has been super influential in my studies and ideas, joined me on the panel, “Public History and Popular Culture: Use and Abuse.”  Needless to say, we had a fabulous time enjoying the sites (and food!) of NOLA, and I felt pretty good about our panel and presentations.  However, our panel, being on Saturday morning in New Orleans, was not as well-attended as I would have liked.  Therefore, I have decided to present my information to you, my online viewers.

We’ve seen social media impacting movements throughout the world and it has even helped to organize the overthrow of politically figures throughout the world.  Social media is a part of pop culture through its power to unite people and share information across the world as well as with friends.  But can these devices and the internet also teach us anything?  And how can these be adapted to use in classrooms?

My first example is from YouTube – The Historyteachers channel – Amy Burvall is a high school history teacher in Hawaii who believes very much in engaging her students in nontraditional ways.  She uses her own free time to take popular songs, such as Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack, and write new lyrics pertaining to subjects she is teaching in her classroom. She then dresses in costumes and sings the song for a camera and edits the videos using graphics and effects to make them visually appealing.  If you watch the Norman Invasion video, you will never again forget the date of the Norman Invasion. She uses these videos not as the only teaching tool in her classroom, but instead as a jumping off point for her discussions.  Students and teachers alike comment on these videos, and almost everyone seems to enjoy them.  She has 53 uploads to her YouTube channel with everything from the Beatles, to Lilly Allen, to Nancy Sinatra and Blondie.

Drunk History – is an interesting experiment in getting historians drunk and then filming them as they explain an historical event or talk about a historic person.  Whether or not these are completely staged or not is debatable, but their affect remains the same.  The original videos, produced by Derek Waters, have appeared on the Funny or Die website and they permeate Youtube and are shared fiercely on facebook and other social media sites.  The drunk historians narrates an historical event, in this case, the relationship between Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln and its impact on the country and race relations.  Famous actors, in this episode Don Cheadle and Will Ferrell, with a cameo by Zooey Deschanel as Mary Todd Lincoln act out the narrator’s words and mime the words as if they are their own.  The effect these historical figures played by celebrities using popular vernacular of our time is amusing, but at the same time, the stories are generally accepted as true tellings of historical events.  Someone may actually learn something about race relations or the roles that these two historical figures played in the beginnings of civil rights and the abolishment of slavery in the United States.  Other examples include Jack Black as Benjamin Franklin, John C. Reilly as Nicola Tesla (my favorite!!!), and Michael Cera as Alexander Hamilton. 

Tumblr- My Daguerreotype boyfriend – this is something I came across in my time as an educational coordinator at a Civil War historic site.  The pictures are of actual people from history, who some people think are attractive.  This site not only shows the pictures but tells the medium with which the photograph was taken, the year, and sometimes a story about that person.  This may teach people something about these people, such as what people wore in that time period, the history of photography, and a plethora of other things.  However, I believe one of the most important things that this website does is personalize history.  Many people see history as a cold and or dead thing in the past with no bearing on the world today.  Looking at these photographs and pictures can help people to realize that these were people with lives and stories of their own.  And let’s face it… those are some hotties of history.

Blogs –  The National Archives have several blogs that they maintain, but one of the most interesting to me is Prologue.  This site really engages the public instead of just telling stories or listing off historical facts.

On Fridays they have facial hair Fridays – for whatever reason, facial hair, mustaches and beards are growing extremely popular with people today.  Mustache finger tattoos and fake moustache packets are popping up all over the place.  The national archives have pounced on this and now every friday they post a picture from their collections of a historical figure with interesting facial hair.  Not only do they post the picture, but they also tell about that person and his impact on American history.  The gentleman in the lower corners story is as follows, “If you’re planning to travel this Columbus Day holiday (and it was, like, 1835), you might thank this guy for building the first steam locomotive in the US: Peter Cooper—inventor, industrialist, and one-time Presidential candidate. But, most important for our purposes, Cooper was the owner of a truly remarkable beard. Impressive facial hair is an asset to any Presidential candidate, but we are sorry to report that Peter Cooper’s beard did not win him the 1876 election, when he ran for the Greenback Party. Still, at the age of 85, Cooper is the oldest person to be nominated for the Presidential office.”

Not only do we learn about the beard and the person behind it, but we also learn a few interesting historic facts as well.

On Thursdays the blog hosts a “Put a caption with this photo” contest.  They post a photo from their collection that is funny or interesting and then ask readers to come up with a clever or amusing caption.  The winner gets something from their online giftshop, and the following week the pictures’ true story is revealed.  Again this engages people, teaches them something, and they get a prize while the national archives boosts sale in their giftshop.

These two slides are pretty self-explanatory – several historical figures are popping up on facebook and on twitter.  While these are often times amusing or clever, they also do provide snipets of history and biographical information.  As discussed below, I hope to experiment with this more in my class through an extra credit opportunity.

As pop culture for the general populous

With historians these things are generally immensely popular, especially among graduate students.  Youtube videos related to historical events make the rounds among my teacher and student friends on facebook and twitter to enormous response and critique.  Historical facebook twitters and facebooks are generally maintained by those people who study the figures.

However, should I post something on my own facebook or twittwe, historical or related to popculture and history, friends who are not historians or particularly interested also often comment.  Their comments are not as varied or voluminous, but they do exist on some level.  An interesting study of the effect on the general populous would be valuable to see how these things affect people who are not in the history or education fields.

Many comments on youtube videos and articles about twitter and facebook are by people who are interested in the subject matter, are teachers, or are students doing research for a class.  However, many times the students comment on how much they enjoyed learning something new in a way that is not usually used in the general classroom.

Pop culture in the classroom – my assignments and thoughts

I currently teach a section of World Civilizations to 1500 at Middle TN State University where I have a variety of students and only 3 history majors.  While I want my students to learn to appreciate history and what it can teach us, I’m not huge into learning facts and dates, but I believe there are some that are very important.  I hope instead that my students can learn critical thinking and the questioning of sources and ideas.  When my class studied pre-Hellenistic Greek cultures I opened the class asking them if they remembered from their readings on which island the Minoans lived.  No one could answer me until they looked it back up in the book.  I then delivered a short presentation on the Minoans, the geography of Crete, the culture and stories of these people, their art, and the archaeological excavations the site has undergone.  Once I delivered the information I asked how many of them knew the band Radiohead and enjoyed their music.  A large majority of the class was familiar.  I then explained we would watch a youtube video, which received exclamations and praise.  I showed my class “I’m from Crete” by Amy Burvall on the historyteachers channel.  The song is a play on Creep by Radiohead, and the chorus repeatedly sings to the viewer, “I’m from Crete… I’m Minoan…” Interspersed throughout the song are other facts about the culture such as their discovery by Sir Arthur Evans, bull-leaping games, and dolphin fresco art.

At the end of the video I engaged my students in a discussion about this video.  The first reaction from one student was that he thought it was terrible and he couldn’t learn anything from it.  I was not going to let him get away with that explanation so I pushed him to tell me why he thought it was awful; perhaps the singing isn’t the best in the world and the graphics are done by a high school history teacher, not Michael Bay.  I then asked him, well, where are the Minoans from, and he said from Crete.  He then went on to list at least 5 or 6 other small facts about the culture that he had remembered from the video and reneged on his original statement that the video was terrible and worthless.  On my students first test I included the fill-in-the-blank question, “I’m from _____________, I’m Minoan.”  Every student who was in that class remembered Crete and got it correct.  While these facts may not be the most important thing they will learn in my class, I’m still proud that I have been able to use popular culture in the classroom successfully.

We also covered questions such as, what does this teach you? Can you learn better from something like this? What do you like and dislike about it?  These questions get the students thinking historically and questioning, but still they have fun and enjoy the learning environment more than they would reading a textbook or listening to a lecture.


So that was my presentation in a nutshell – unfortunately for you, the internet viewer, you were unable to catch my witty remarks and anecdotes, but I hope this was somewhat beneficial or representative of the content.

In other news, I’m about to assign an extra credit project to my class in which they research information needed to create a facebook profile page for a historic figure we have studied.   Hopefully soon I will have information to report on that!

St. Louis Cathedral and the French Quarter

I will leave you with this picture, of me enjoying the other side of the conference – sight-seeing in NOLA!Crawfish deliciousness

 

Another semester soon begins, after an extremely productive summer…

Getty Villa Courtyard

Indeed, I realize it as been months since I last posted, but I’ve had an incredibly productive and educational summer.  Here are the highlights that I hope to expound upon more in the future:

– I had 3 summer courses, which finished up my coursework portion for my PhD program!!  I took 2 Advanced projects and an interdisciplinary education course.

– I traveled.  A LOT. Highlights include:

Los Angeles, CA – I went to the Getty Villa in Malibu – I have a review all written up in my head, and hopefully my more structured fall schedule will allow me to write more about it.

I met a Sphinx at the Luxor

– Las Vegas, Nevada – It was Vegas!  I also took time to look at several ancient/world history related things (Luxor, Caesar’s Palace, Forum Shops) in relation to Margaret Malamud’s article about the use of history in unusual settings.  Again, I have all kinds of thoughts and pictures from this and hope to share those this fall as well.

Toronto & Niagara Falls, Ontario – Part of an advanced projects in public history and cultural geography.  I developed a walking tour of Toronto, and I assure you I put the leg-work in to that project.  I will post it here soon, and I hope that anyone reading this enjoys walking approximately 25-30 miles over two days as much as I did.

We started a band while we were there

– I worked as interim education coordinator for the best historic site with the absolute best staff and most incredible boss and coworkers for most of the summer.  I learned lots and got some great projects out of it.  I also got to meet a baby goat, Snickers.

– Perhaps most exciting (yes, even more so than LA and Vegas AND the baby goat) was passing both my written and oral PhD Qualifyinf exams this week!  I am officially a resident now.

Snicks!

– Which leads me to the next exciting thing… I’ve been preparing to teach my first very own class this fall – World Civ 1.  I’ve put a lot in to it, and I think it’s going to be fun!  Next semester I will teach Explorations in Public History for my 2nd residency semester, and I already have a million ideas to mull through for that class.

Hope this post explains my absence to some extent!  I plan to post more regularly throughout the school year as I have done in the past.  I have a ton of material to talk about from the summer, and I am positive that the residency year will provide plenty of fodder for the blogging machine as well.   Also look for plenty of portfolio and CV updates full of my summer work!

Teaching begins tomorrow…. send us all the best of wishes (and a prayer for finding a parking space)!

Book Review Next Week: The Dawn Country by Kathleen O’Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear

Last week I was approached to be a part of a blog tour for a new book: The Dawn Country by Kathleen O’Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear.   The book is in the mail, so I will write the review next week.  I’ve also had e-interview access with the authors, so next week I should have answers to questions such as:

  1. What kind of connections do you see between your popular historical fiction writing and public history/archaeology?
  2. Are you familiar with Janet Spector’s “What this awl means”, and if so, what connections can you make between her work and your own? (as related to class discussion a few weeks ago in Material Cultures seminar)
  3. What inspired you to tell the stories of these people, and how does historical archaeology assist that process?

The publishers sent me the following information about the book and authors:

ABOUT THE BOOK:

The Dawn Country is the Gears’ 50th published novel, and the first North American series hit international as well as the USA Today bestseller lists.

PEOPLE OF THE LONGHOUSE series is about the first Iroquois confederacy and the legendary heroes who founded it, the Peacemaker, Dekanawida, his friend, Hiawento, and the “Mother of Nations,” Jigonsaseh.  Set between the years of A.D. 1430-1451, this epic tale takes readers to New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Ontario six hundred years ago, when five Iroquois tribes were locked in bitter warfare. Yet the violence led to one of the most remarkable alliances in the history of America, the League of the Iroquois: a confederacy of five nations whose ideas on government would literally change the world.

In The Dawn Country, set around the year 1430 during a time of violent upheaval, Young Wrass is being held captive, along with several other children, in the legendary evil Gannajero the Crow’s camp. Gannajero profits enormously by buying and selling children to outcast warriors who subject them to brutal treatment.  Wrass knows he can’t wait to be rescued. He has to organize the children for an assault on Gannajero’s warriors.  Even if he dies, someone has to escape, to carry the story back to their people. It’s the only way to stop the evil old woman.

But Koracoo, a female war chief, and Gonda, her husband and deputy, have not abandoned their search.  They’re coming for the children, and they have allies: a battle-weary Mohawk war chief and a Healer from the People of the Dawnland.  Together, they will find the children and destroy Gannajero. But not before many of the children have been sold and carried off to distant villages— lost to their families and homes forever.

Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear have successfully provided a vital understanding of the history of North America with the latest archaeological findings and sweeping dramatic narratives and strong Native American tradition. Filled with fascinating details about ancient customs mixed  with adventure, spine-tingling action, and spiritual power that is entertaining and intelligent, The Dawn Country will gratify dedicated fans and appeal to newcomers of the series.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

W. MICHAEL GEAR, who holds a master’s degree in archaeology, has worked as a professional archaeologist since 1978. He is currently principal investigator for Wind River Archaeological Consultants.

KATHLEEN O’NEAL GEAR is a former state historian and archaeologist for Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska for the U.S. Department of the Interior. She has twice received the federal government’s Special Achievement Award for “outstanding management” of our nation’s cultural heritage.

For more, visit: www.gear-gear.com.

** Now for the fun part!!  Comment on this post with any thoughts you have on popular history or historical fiction and how it relates to public history for your chance to win a copy of The Dawn Country.  I’ll choose and announce the winners some time next week.