Webinar: Increasing Accessibility and Inclusion at Community Organizations

Webinar Description

For individuals with developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorders and their families, accessing community arts, civic, and cultural events can be challenging and at times, feel incredibly overwhelming. The uncertainty of new situations – will they feel overwhelmed, will their child have a melt-down and need to leave as soon as they arrive, will they be judged by other people – can be enough to deter an individual or family from seeking experiences that could be enjoyable and enriching for their child and for their family as a whole.

This webinar series is a two-part series. The first webinar will highlight an overview of neurodiversity, accessibility, and inclusion as well as a focus on autism spectrum disorders and respectfully communicate to and about this population. The second part of the series will include lessons learned and practical applications from Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage and recommendations for actionable first steps to increase accessibility and inclusion at your organization.


DATES: PART I: January 7, 2020 | PART II: January 23, 2020

TIME: 3:00 - 4:00 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone)

COST: $30 AASLH and Texas Historical Commission Members / $50 Nonmembers (Texas Historical Commission members should contact THC for a discount code)

REGISTRATION: Registration includes both Part I and Part II of the AASLH Increasing Accessibility and Inclusion at Community Organizations webinar series.


We will record these events. Access the Recorded Webinars in the AASLH Resource Center after the event has passed. Registrants of this event receive complimentary access to the recordings in their Dashboard. 

Closed captioning is provided for these events.

Related Events

AASLH encourages participants to also attend Neurodiversity in Museums: Crafting Community for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder presented by the Texas Historical Commission on Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 3:00 pm EST. Please note that registration for the January 15 webinar must be completed separately through the Texas Historical Commission and is not included in your AASLH registration.

Partner Webinar: Neurodiversity in Museums: Crafting Community for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Join museum professional and autism mom Jackie Spainhour as she provides insight into how museums of all sizes and scopes can adapt their facilities and programming to suit the needs of children on the autism spectrum. Jackie will share tangible steps that any museum can take, resources for best practices in engaging children on the autism spectrum, and will discuss how and why museums should prioritize these efforts.



DATE: January 15, 2020

TIME: 3:00 – 4:00 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone)

COST: Free

REGISTRATION: This webinar is presented by the Texas Historical Commission. Registration must be completed separately through the Texas Historical Commission. Follow the link in the button below to register.



Jackie Spainhour is a writer, researcher, museum professional, and special needs mom living in Norfolk, Virginia. She is an alumnus of Old Dominion University and sits on the Board of Directors for the Victorian Society in America. Jackie serves as the Director of the Hunter House Victorian Museum is the author of "Museums and Millennials: Engaging the Coveted Patron Generation" and "Gilded Age Norfolk, Virginia: Tidewater Wealth, Industry, and Propriety." Jackie was a 2018 Leadership and Advocacy Fellow for the Virginia Association of Museums, with her research focusing on autism and museums.

Related Events

AASLH encourages participants to also attend Increasing Accessibility and Inclusion at Community Organizations presented by AASLH. This webinar series is a two-part series presented on January 7 and January 23, 2020. The first webinar will highlight an overview of neurodiversity, accessibility, and inclusion as well as a focus on autism spectrum disorders and respectfully communicate to and about this population. The second part of the series will include lessons learned and practical applications from Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage and recommendations for actionable first steps to increase accessibility and inclusion at your organization. Follow the link in the button below to register.


Webinar: Increasing Accessibility and Inclusion at Community Organizations

Webinar Description

For individuals with developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorders and their families, accessing community arts, civic, and cultural events can be challenging and at times, feel incredibly overwhelming. The uncertainty of new situations – will they feel overwhelmed, will their child have a melt-down and need to leave as soon as they arrive, will they be judged by other people – can be enough to deter an individual or family from seeking experiences that could be enjoyable and enriching for their child and for their family as a whole.

This webinar series is a two-part series. The first webinar will highlight an overview of neurodiversity, accessibility, and inclusion as well as a focus on autism spectrum disorders and respectfully communicate to and about this population. The second part of the series will include lessons learned and practical applications from Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage and recommendations for actionable first steps to increase accessibility and inclusion at your organization.


DATES: PART I: January 7, 2020 | PART II: January 23, 2020

TIME: 3:00 - 4:00 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone)

COST: $30 AASLH and Texas Historical Commission Members / $50 Nonmembers (Texas Historical Commission members should contact THC for a discount code)

REGISTRATION: Registration includes both Part I and Part II of the AASLH Increasing Accessibility and Inclusion at Community Organizations webinar series.


We will record these events. Access the Recorded Webinars in the AASLH Resource Center after the event has passed. Registrants of this event receive complimentary access to the recordings in their Dashboard. 

Closed captioning is provided for these events.

Related Events

AASLH encourages participants to also attend Neurodiversity in Museums: Crafting Community for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder presented by the Texas Historical Commission on Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 3:00 pm EST. Please note that registration for the January 15 webinar must be completed separately through the Texas Historical Commission and is not included in your AASLH registration.

You Start By Meeting Your Audience

A visitor touches a 3D miniature model of the Statue of Liberty.
NPS photo.

By Mike Hudson, Director, Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind, Louisville, KY

When I started working at the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind, I immediately knew something was wrong. The display cases open up to allow their contents to be touched, and there is not a single “Don’t Touch” sign in the building. I had a fairly conventional museum studies education and a fairly conventional job at a state history museum before this one, so it all seemed very unorthodox to me.

Years later, I see things differently. Our museum is located in the original 1883 building of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) in Louisville, Kentucky. APH was founded in 1858 to supply accessible learning materials for students who are blind or visually impaired. Today, it is the largest such company in the world. How could we possibly justify exhibiting tactile globes and braille writing machines, teaching tools meant to be used by touch, under Plexiglas covers so that the very people they were designed to serve cannot “see” them?

For people who are blind or visually impaired, many museums remain extremely sterile places, despite years of plans and programs to make museums more accessible. APH opened its museum in 1994 with a different perspective.

Instead of justifying why one or two pieces of sturdy sculpture can be used on a touch tour, our museum has to justify why an artifact can’t be touched.

If we have several Hall Braillewriters, why wouldn’t we install one in a case that can be opened? We do still have artifacts under glass, items too fragile or rare to be touched. In those situations, we rack our brains trying to figure out how to represent them with a tactile reproduction.

A blue Braillewriter typing on pink paper.

My colleagues at other museums often ask us for help improving their accessibility and inclusion. For me, it simplifies down to three steps. The first step is both the most obvious and yet the most daunting. We believe that you start by meeting your audience. You need to get to know some people who are blind or visually impaired. Groups like the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind have chapters in most of the larger cities. Reach out to their leadership and work with them to identify people in your area who are already excited about your museum’s mission.

Bring the group in, pour them a cup of coffee, and get to know them. Ask them about their museum experiences, what they liked and what they didn’t about other museum visits from their past.

Take your new advisory team on a tour of your site. Talk about the decisions you make to preserve your community’s history, and find out what excites them about your community. In those conversations, you will start to understand the barriers to navigation and content delivery that you face, and hopefully, you start to get excited about what your museum or historic site could offer to make people like your team feel more welcome there.

A diagram explains how much space to leave in exhibits for cane users.
From the Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design.

The second step is staff training. At APH, our training program is called Blindness 101. We help our new guides understand what blindness is, how it affects people, and proper etiquette and language. We explain about white canes, dog guides, and how people with vision loss get around. We teach them how to serve as a sighted guide and how to give useful directions. We explore how we use words to describe our surroundings—what the field calls audio description—and how much and how little detail to include. In short, we give them tools, so that when a visitor with sight impairment walks in the door they are ready to provide an outstanding experience, just as they would for any visitor. And our training program is ongoing. Blindness is not common, nor is visual impairment a monolithic experience. We need to train and retrain to keep our interpretive staff sharp. Fortunately, the skills we learn to improve accessibility improve the experiences of all.

Our final step is to introduce accessibility features into our interpretation, using ideas from conversations with our intended audience. Some additions are relatively simple, like making sure that there is a descriptive guide to our front door from the taxi or bus drop-off posted on our website. And while we’re there, let’s post our exhibit script in a format accessible to a screen reader, a program that turns text files into the spoken word so visitors can download the material and either read it in advance or as a follow-up to their visit.

Let’s look at our exhibits and see if there are protruding cases that might not be detected by a cane, or case or stanchion supports that might trap a cane. How easy it is to find bathrooms, and are they clearly marked in braille? Are all of our labels in large print, preferably 18-20 point or larger? Could we get our gallery guide translated into braille and stow a few copies behind the desk?

A diagram explains how much space to leave in exhibits for cane users.

Now let’s think about making artifacts meaningful for those who can’t visually understand them. What about interpreting a portrait with reproduction fabric? Letting visitors get a feel for a pioneer kitchen with touchable pots, firewood, and ingredients? Authentic artifacts are fair game as well: items deaccessioned into an education collection, obtained specifically to be handled, or protected with microcrystalline wax will help us transform a sterile and empty experience into a memory, an “I was there and we did this!” kind of moment.

Several visitors touch a 3D relief map of the Grand Canyon.
NPS photo.

We will never truly make meaningful progress until we kick the doors down and let people who are blind or visually impaired into the decision-making process in our museums.

What would happen if folks from your advisory team served on your governing board? We try to hire summer interns with visual impairment—what would it mean for your interpretation if a member of your curatorial team was blind or visually impaired? Last year we organized a small team, about ten or so, that we call our education associates. All have a visual impairment of some sort. Every education program that our museum educator delivers now has support from our education associates, and we are training our associates to help improve accessibility in other museums in our city. Four or five associates will visit a museum, and then sit down with staff to discuss their experience and how it can be improved. Our museum staff leads Blindness 101 training for interpretive staff as a follow-up. We are still in the beginning stages of what our company president calls the “accessible cities project.” I think the next few years will be pretty interesting, as we learn more about what is possible when we open our doors and our minds to real accessibility.

Learn more...

This column originally appeared in the autumn 2018 issue of History News as part of our "The Whole Is Greater" series.

Getting in the Door is the Battle

By Alima Bucciantini, Assistant Professor of Public History at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA

I have cerebral palsy. It’s a neuromuscular disability that can have a wide range of effects, but for me it means that I wear braces on my legs and usually use a snazzy colored crutch to walk. My disability had been both an integral part of my life and not a big deal. It’s always been there, but my parents never let it stop me doing anything I, or they, wanted to do. Everyday experiences like going to the museum were often seen as good excuses for practicing practical life skills, like climbing stairs. We all know how many stairs can be outside museums! We went everywhere, and I don’t remember often looking for an accessible entrance or alternative route. Instead, my parents would encourage me to make it work, and help me subtly when I needed it.

This approach fostered my independence and sense that I could do anything. It also meant that I didn’t even think to mention my disability when I got my first museum internship over the phone as a college sophomore. I just happily assumed I could do anything and everything, and that I would be as accepted as any other intern. After all, I could make it work— I was at college by myself, living independently away from family. Why would I not be able to intern?

It was a shock, then, when I was greeted on my first day by a boss who looked at me and expressed concern that I could do the job required. I had no good response, other than silence. I was unsure of my rights, and also unsure if she was right! All of a sudden I felt more disabled and more visible that I ever had before.

For the record, I was able to do everything. There is nothing too inaccessible about volunteer management and program research, even on the National Mall. Everything can be worked around. I would not have accepted an internship that required me to be on my feet all the time or go running or anything—that would have been ridiculous for me and everyone involved.

I went on to have a wonderful, busy, and eye-opening summer working for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. I helped to recruit, train, and manage volunteers, I entered data in databases, and I researched upcoming exhibitions and sourced objects. But running under all of it was a feeling that I had to prove myself. Every intern has this, of course, but I felt that I couldn’t ask for any help, show any weakness, or ever let them know I was tired. I had to be better than that. The other thing was that I did not go to anyone there about my concerns, or about the fact that I did not feel part of the team. I have told this story to only a few people in the years since that internship.

During that time, I began to realize that the world does not see me the way my parents do. Everyone has this realization sometime, but it was especially harsh for me. I had to come to terms with the fact that the museum world, where accessibility is supposedly considered in audience terms and when designing labels and exhibits, does not often have a level of comfort with disability in its staff.

There is a "them" to be considered with accessibility in mind, and an "us" who does the considering. But according to the Census Bureau, one in five Americans has a disability of some sort, even if not all are visible ones like mine. Even more will acquire a disability at some point in their lives, at least temporarily.

When I finished my Ph.D. program, I began looking contemporaneously at academic jobs and curatorial jobs, seeing as my specialty was museum studies. All the museum job postings have "must be able to lift twenty-five pounds" under essential job skills. Others upped this to fifty, or added climbing a ladder. If a job function is listed as essential, it falls outside the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) “reasonable accommodation” language. This means jobs with these requirements are under no responsibility to accommodate people who cannot fulfill these physical tasks. I can’t safely climb a ladder. Probably no one wants me to try to lift fifty, or even twenty-five, pounds and go anywhere with it—but is that what makes a curator?

Instead of doing that, I have worked with art and objects by taking things out of storage (carefully, safely), putting them on carts, moving them to tables, sitting down, or balancing myself against something, and handling them. Technology also helps a lot. There are programs that allow you to create whole gallery layouts, with your own collection, in your own gallery space, arranging and re-arranging each case and wall to your satisfaction in virtual reality without getting on a single ladder. You can then hand the printouts and specifications to a facilities and installation team and just oversee while they climb the ladders.

All of this is to say that the type of language that I encountered as I entered the field and still see today is an unnecessary barrier to entry. At a time when we are—or should be—trying to diversify the museum and public history field, why are we not lowering barriers? Or at the very least, thinking critically about why they are there?

Museums, at their start, were meant to be exclusionary spaces. They were meant to keep out the riff-raff and be imposing temples of learning. But luckily we have evolved past that now and are embracing a more community-oriented, open doors policy.  Disability is part of the community and in the museum world, that can be more than just ADA standards. It’s about representation, and really thinking about what make the collection and the work space open to everyone. I get so frustrated sometimes at conferences and reading texts about disability in museums, because there is so often language about working with the disability community in the museum space, as if there is a clear divide between that community and those who are doing the work.

While there might not be many museum workers with visible disabilities like me—though there would be more if the barriers discussed above were lowered—I am sure there are many with invisible disabilities such as mental illness, vision impairment, hearing impairment, ADHD, and so many others. How much better could we be as staff if people felt they could be open about those issues, and used their experience with their disabilities to make their understanding of what visitors want and need from museums better?

My friends and students say that they see historic sites differently after going with me. They notice where the elevators are or aren’t, how often there are benches to sit on, and how easy it is to read labels and to navigate around rooms. They then translate that experience to their friends and family who might visit with kids in strollers or with elderly grandparents. Because the thing is, what makes life easier for me also makes life easier for a lot of people who might like to be in the museum. This is the beauty of universal design. It’s not that I’m the only one that can see this, but who is doing it? Everyone should be.

As just one person with a disability in the field who wants to see museums and public history grow, here are my recommendations. Think about how you can be accessible to disabled workers on your staff, starting with your job ads. Use the diversity of your staff as an asset, one that can help you connect to and build your audience. Think about your framing. Is accessibility something you have to do, just because of ADA standards? Change it, and make it an asset.

A truly accessible space is good for the community. It’s good for babies and good for the elderly, and along the way, it’s good for us disabled people, too. It’s good for everyone.

Learn more...

FSA Tips: Visitor Services Beyond the Front Desk

By Jeannette Rooney, Assistant Director, Local History Services, Indiana Historical Society

When we think of visitor services, we often imagine that it's all about greeting people at the front desk, but it goes way beyond that. In order to create a positive, welcoming, and enriching environment, visitor service standards should be at the core of our work and integrated into our daily operations. Everything – from our website to our exhibits, landscaping, restrooms, and even our parking lot – forms part of a visitor's experience of our site. The following tips are a starting point for considering the many aspects of visitor services.

10 Tips for Visitor Services

  1. Create written visitor services standards for your organization. Make sure all staff and volunteers are aware of your core visitor services standards, and post copies of them in volunteer and staff spaces. For further reading, see this excellent Museum Store Association blog post, and check out the National Archives Customer Service Plan.
  2. Everyone at your site is responsible for providing good visitor service, and all staff and volunteers should receive visitor service training, regardless of their level of public interaction. Training should include your visitor service standards, audience and visitor demographics, information about the organization, a site tour, and other pertinent information.
  3. People visit museums for different reasons, so don't take a one-size-fits-all approach to responding to visitors. In addition, some people may want more interaction with staff and volunteers, while others want to keep conversation to a minimum. Learn to read body language to interpret how a visitor wants to interact. For further reading, see "Understanding Museum Visitors’ Motivations and Learning" by Dr. John Falk.
  4. Every visitor should feel welcomed and comfortable in their interactions with your staff and volunteers, from initial greetings to in-depth tours. Being a welcoming space for all visitors means considering diversity and inclusion, multilingual options, learning styles, and much more. For further reading, start with this resource from AAM.
  5. Remove all barriers to accessibility at your museum or historic site. There are many resources available for making all aspects of the museum experience accessible. Two good places to start are the Americans with Disabilities Act and IMLS's Accessibility Resources for Museums and Libraries.
  6. Remember that a visitor's experience of your organization often begins online. Make sure your phone, email, physical location, hours, events, and other pertinent information are all readily available and up-to-date on your website and social media sites.
  7. Develop a checklist to be integrated into your daily operations. For your checklist, include: a walk of your exterior grounds to check for tidiness, accessibility, parking, landscaping, and signage; restocking necessary materials in your welcome area; a walk throughout your building to check for cleanliness, lighting, room temperatures, odors, seating, signs, exhibits, and labels; and a complete restroom cleaning and restock.
  8. Consider creating a journey map for your site that outlines a visitor's experience, from their first encounter with your organization (probably online or through word of mouth), through their entire experience at your site, to their return home. For more on Journey Mapping, see Engaging Places's "How to Evaluate the Visitor Experience with Journey Maps."
  9. Unfortunately, sometimes things don't go exactly right, so it is important to have a plan for dealing with sticky situations. Staff and volunteers should know who to go to in case of an unhappy visitor or an emergency. When you encounter an upset visitor, here are a few tips: don't take it personally; listen and show empathy; apologize (even if you aren't in the wrong); be polite and professional at all times; never argue or escalate the situation; and do everything within your power to solve the problem.
  10. One of the best ways to find out how you can best serve your audience is to ask them. Surveys, comment cards, sticky notes, observation, and other forms of evaluation can be excellent ways to help you improve services, ensure you are meeting your mission and objectives, and gauge impact. If you're just getting started with evaluation, check out this AASLH blog post, "Approaching Evaluation," and IMLS's Evaluation Resources.

What is the Field Service Alliance? The Field Services Alliance (FSA) is an organized group of individuals, offices, and agencies that provide training opportunities, guidance, technical services, and other forms of assistance to local historical societies, archives, libraries, and museums in their respective states or regions.

Something seems different...

Alright. You caught us. You might be noticing that aaslh.org looks a little (or a lot) different. That’s because for a while now, we’ve been working behind the scenes to develop a site with a new design and new features that make it easier for AASLH members to find what they need. The new website is an extension of AASLH and our mission to provide the best support and resources possible to folks doing history at all levels.

The primary objectives of our site development efforts were focused on aesthetics, simplifying our content, and increasing the visibility of our programs. The new design also allows for streamlined menus, clear navigation, and a responsive layout for all platforms.

Additionally, we’ve re-examined the AASLH Resource Center. The re-design not only streamlines our offerings, making it easier to find what you need, but it also allows you to personalize your learning experience to create and grow your own personal library.

This process has been an incredible learning experience and a true labor of love for those of us behind the scenes, and the greatest part, by far, is getting to share it with you!  

Keep an eye on the blog and your inbox for more details on how you can get the most out of our new site. In the meantime, welcome to your new online home for history.

P.S. We know that true accessibility isn’t a box you check on a to-do list, so we’ll be continuously working to make our new site and other online offerings more accessible. Please let us know if you have any suggestions!

Webinar: Accessibility and Inclusivity at Museums and Historic Sites

How museums and historic sites can create inclusive programming and educational experiences for history lovers of all ages and abilities. Going beyond basic ADA compliance, this webinar will provide examples and strategies for cultural organizations to be better stewards of history and accessible to diverse audiences.


Date: November 29, 2017

Time: 3pm-4:15pm EST

Cost: $40 AASLH Members/ $65 Nonmembers


Full Description of the Webinar:

Conversations about inclusivity and accessibility have become common place within the museum community. Issues of inclusivity can take account of a variety of audiences with special needs: those with mobility limitations, deaf/hearing impaired, blind/visually impaired, developmental, cognitive, or learning disabilities, and on the autism spectrum. As many museums have realized over the past two decades, people with special needs are an important audience; one that should not be ignored. But how can museums and historic sites make their programming and interpretative goals inclusive to those groups? And how can we be more purposeful in our efforts to better serve everyone in our communities?

Join AASLH and Katie Stringer Clary in a conversation on how museums and historic sites can create inclusive programming and educational experiences for history lovers of all ages and abilities. Going beyond basic ADA compliance, this webinar will provide examples and strategies for cultural organizations to be better stewards of history and accessible to diverse audiences.


About the Speaker:

katie_claryDr. Katie Stringer Clary currently teaches history and public history at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.  Since 2007, Dr. Clary has worked with museums in various capacities from docent to executive director.  In her time at museums and as a graduate student in Public History she focused on museum education and inclusion, especially for people with special needs.  This research culminated in her 2014 manuscript, Programming for People with Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites.  She followed this with a chapter “Accessibility in Museum Learning” in Museum Learning, 2nd Ed. edited by Barry Lord and Brad King in 2015.  Through her work, she continues to advocate for accessibility equality in museums and historic sites and presented as a discussant in a ongoing working group on this topic at the National Council for Public History in March of 2016.

Take a look at Dr. Clary’s AASLH published book, Programming for People with Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites here and her blog Something Old, Something New here.

For an example on how programming for visitors with special needs can be done, check out Caroline Braden’s “Focusing on Guests with Special Needs: Examples and Insights from The Henry Ford,” and Katie Poole’s “Inclusivity and Accessibility at Museums: It’s Worth the Work.”

Learn More

History, Memory, and Disability Rights: Creating Inclusive Public Humanities Programs

“History, Memory, and Disability Rights: Creating Inclusive Public Humanities Programs,” a one-day public humanities conference and workshops that features current research on the complex and complicated historical narrative that is the disability rights movement in the mid-Atlantic region, will take place on Saturday, November 19, 2016, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at Rutgers University-pennhurst-1Camden. It is sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Humanities Center at Rutgers-Camden and affiliated partners. The program will focus on social attitudes and public policy efforts to marginalize individual citizens with developmental disabilities, as well as on the countervailing forces of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization. Afternoon workshops will address the use of history as a tool in community education and public advocacy pertaining to disability rights and interpretation of disability history at historic sites.

The mid-Atlantic region, comprised of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and Delaware, played a pivotal role in the development and transformation of disability rights and public policy.  At the dawn of the twentieth century, new scientific and social theories (such as eugenics) were indispensable in a shift in social attitudes and state government policy. The result was a well-organized campaign to isolate and eliminate citizens stigmatized as “feebleminded” or in some way “defective.” The terminology was abrasive and dehumanizing, and it served to deny individuals their freedom, dignity, and rights. In addition to legalized sterilization and anti-marriage legislation, more than a quarter million Americans with an intellectual or developmental disability were confined in 300 public institutions, a practice that continued well into the twenty-first century. New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—in fact, each of the fifty states—each had its own experience with this nationwide trend.


Three-quarters of a century later, the states of the mid-Atlantic region witnessed some of the greatest moments in the disability rights freedom struggle. Often neglected in the mainstream historical narrative, the disability rights movement touches on a host of contemporary social, legal, and public policy issues. The experiences of people with disability also serve to remind us that history is something that happens to people.

A content-based symposium that includes both formal and informal presentations, and two afternoon workshops, this humanities forum will address neglected aspects of American and mid-Atlantic history. The workshops will have the added benefit of assessing a) how museums and historical societies can be more inclusive in content, interpretation, and community education efforts, and b) the relationship of history to disability rights and community-based advocacy. The day-long program will conclude with a roundtable discussion that includes educators, museum curators, advocates, self-advocates, and the general public.

The target audience includes museum and historic site specialists, curators and educators, research scholars, advocacy organizations, people living with disabilities, caregivers, and anyone with an interest in learning more and raising awareness about this important history.

Registration is $20 and includes lunch. We are able to offer 10 “scholarships” that waive the registration fee to people with intellectual, developmental, or other disabilities; self-advocates are encouraged to apply. Funding is available for the first 10 individuals who apply. Please send name, address, and email address to Tamara Gaskell, at tamara.gaskell@rutgers.edu, by October 31.

Register by November 11! Visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/history-memory-and-disability-rights-creating-inclusive-public-humanities-programs-tickets-27827974220


Morning Sessions

8:00 a.m.    Registration and Coffee

8:45 a.m.    Welcome
Introduction: Jean Searle, Disability Rights Network and PMPA

9:00 a.m.    Dennis B. Downey, Millersville University
“From Exclusion to Inclusion: Disability and Public Policy, 1880 to the Present”

9:45 a.m.     Ruthie-Marie Beckwith, City University of New York
“Disability Servitude: A Legacy of Abuse and Exploitation”

10:30 a.m.   Deborah Spitalnik, Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
“Institutions and Community: The New Jersey Context”

11:15 a.m.   James W. Conroy, Center for Outcomes Analysis and
the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance
                   “Historical Memory and the Disability Rights Revolution: Creating a Pennhurst Museum and Interpretive Center”

11:45 a.m.    Conversation

12:15 p.m.    Lunch


Afternoon Workshops 1:30 p.m.

“Public Conversations, Advocacy, and Disability Rights:
The Role of History in Promoting Dialogue and Social Change”
Led by David Mack Hardiman, People, Inc., and Museum of disABILITY History

Can knowing the past helps us understand the present and (ideally) shape a better future? How can history, and an understanding of history, enfranchise citizens with disabilities and their communities and help the public, museum educators, and advocates better address current policy issues?  David Mack- Hardiman of the Museum of disABILITY History will facilitate a discussion on the importance of preservation of disability history to provide relevant contextual information for current policy debates.  For example, information about institutionalization has often been presented without the background of the moral model of treatment. How does our understanding change when the segregation of people who were disabled is framed by awareness of the prevailing theories of eugenics? Participants will engage in a dialogue that examines the relevance of history in regard to current service delivery systems. This discussion will clarify links between the past and the present and inspire participants to build awareness and advocacy in their own communities.

“Accessible Museums, Accessible Objects:
Interpreting the Material Culture of Disability for Contemporary Audiences”
Led by Nicole Belolan, University of Delaware

What was it like to be disabled in early America, and how can we incorporate this history into our interpretation of museums and historic sites in accessible ways? In this workshop, Nicole Belolan will outline how museums and historic sites can take low-cost steps toward making their venues more accessible for all audiences. She will also share what we can learn about the material experience of disability in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. How can we address the history of physical disability in early America in museum settings, including when it “overlaps” with other types of impairment, through well-known artifacts such as easy chairs and lesser-known objects such as adult cradles? Participants will also have a chance to examine and discuss some examples of historical material culture of disability.

3:00 p.m.     Discussion and Conclusion

Web link:

More info: http://march.rutgers.edu/2016/09/history-memory-and-disability-rights-creating-inclusive-public-humanities-programs/

Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/history-memory-and-disability-rights-creating-inclusive-public-humanities-programs-tickets-27827974220

The Legacy of Dime Museums and the Freakshow : How the Past Impacts the Present

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2013 issue of History News magazineYou can read the article in PDF format here: Stringer, Autumn 2013.

I began writing my dissertation for Middle Tennessee State University’s Public History Ph.D. program in 2012 with the idea that my research would culminate in a practical plan for museums and historic sites to go beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to welcome visitors with all disabilities and abilities to have meaningful experiences. Throughout history there have been many populations that have been discriminated against or ignored by institutions and organizations of all types. The same is true of museums, and some might argue that those problems still exist today. Even with the ADA it seems that museums and historic organizations are still behind in reaching out to and welcoming people with disabilities.

As I researched the history of museums, it was clear that almost all began as institutes for the wealthy, educated elite classes. As dime museums became popular, they were opened to even the lowest classes, but as you will read below, the institutions did not seem to welcome visitors with dis­abilities except as exhibitions. Once these shows took to the road, they became sideshows or freakshows, often accom­panying circuses. The shows became inextricably tied to the term “exhibition” and in some cases, even museum.

My research on freakshows as exhibitions helps to inform museums on this somewhat sordid past, and can offer con­text for those institutions that are trying to go beyond as­sumed limitations to become true community centers for all members of society.


Dime Museums and Freakshows

From the popular Coney Island amusement area in New York City to traveling circuses and sideshows, exhibits that featured people with physical differences were some of the most prevalent attractions of the nineteenth and early twenti­eth centuries. Dime museums and national exhibitions up to the mid-twentieth century often featured humans who were considered “different” for the public to view and experience. The exhibition of people in these shows was sometimes vol­untary, but most often were acts of desperation from people the mass culture considered to be “freaks.” The place of those individuals with disabilities is an important piece of the past that informs present displays and exhibits, mu­seum policies, and popular attitudes. Even today, modern sideshows are available to the public in various forums. To understand the impact that the past had on the present, it is important to first understand what a freakshow is or was, and what defines a “freak.”


New York and Cincinnati: Strobridge & Co. Lith. Accessed through the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


The exhibitions of people who are different have been called many things: Raree Shows, Halls of Human Curiosities, Sideshows, Pitshows, Odditoriums, Congress of Oddities, Collections of Human Wonders, Museum of Nature’s Mistakes, and Freakshows. One of the first ex­amples of a traveling exhibit of a person appeared in 1738, in a colonial American newspaper. The paper ran an advertise­ment for an exhibit of a person who “was taken in a wood at Guinea, ’tis a female about four feet high, in every part like a woman excepting her head which nearly resembles the ape.”

Throughout the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, freakshows or sideshows were among the most popular at­tractions for the middle-class public. [1]

From 1840 until 1940, freakshows were at their height. Historians typically mark 1840 as the beginning of the freakshow era. That was the year P.T. Barnum began the American Museum, a New York City attraction that cost a dime to enter. The museum contained many exhibits of historic artifacts and gaffes, faked items made to trick the viewer. The museum also housed many people who were considered to be rarities worthy of exhibition. These people included: General Tom Thumb, a person with dwarfism; the Aztec Twins; albinos; the “What is It?” a person with micro­cephaly; and many other “living curiosities.” [2]

Barnum’s American Museum was, in a sense, following in the footsteps of the earliest museums of the Western world. Considered to be the first modern museum, the Ashmolean Museum in England opened at Oxford University in 1683. It is generally thought to be the first museum established by a public body for the public benefit. The collection con­tained natural history specimens, coins, books, and art and was essentially a “cabinet of curiosities.” Anthony Wood described the Ashmolean Museum as a building “necessary in order to the promoting and carrying on with greater ease and success severall parts of usefull [sic] and curious learn­ing.” The museum had ten rooms and three of those were open to the public. Collections included the “hieroglyph­icks [sic] and other Egyptian antiquities” donated by Dr. Robert Huntingdon, an “intire [sic] mummy,” and “Romane [sic] antiquities.” These collections represent what was for­eign, entertaining, and intriguing to Oxford students, fac­ulty, and residents. [3]

In 1865 a fire destroyed P. T. Barnum’s original American Museum. The New York Times listed many of the items of interest that had been lost in the fire, though none of the people who were exhibited died. A newspaper article pub­lished in 1865 claimed that Barnum was constructing a new museum to replace the old. The author claimed, “The fact is, that the loss of the museum was a national calamity.” [4]

When Barnum’s museum burned in 1865, few com­plained. In The Nation, Edwin Lawrence Godkin exclaimed, “The worst and most corrupt classes of our people must seek some new place of resort.” He then questioned whether visi­tors were more upset by the fire that destroyed the museum or the state of the artifacts in the museum. Godkin asserted that the “insufficiency, disorder, neglected condition” of the museum should have insulted visitors. To Godkin, muse­ums had to be more professional, educational, and limited in the audience they sought to attract. He concluded, “The profoundly scientific are not those who care for public mu­seums, unless containing this or that unique treasure. The frequenters of museums are those who cannot themselves give much time or means to the collection, classification, and study of specimens, but who read in the evenings and would gladly see by day a larger number and greater variety of helps to understand than their own limited time has sufficed to discover.” Godkin called for a new museum that would do justice to that title. He said, “It is in behalf of all classes of the community, except that vicious and degraded one by which the late ‘American Museum’ was largely monopolized, that we ask the community for a building and for collections that shall be worthy of the name so sadly misapplied.” [5]


Burning of Barnum's Museum, July 13, 1865By C. P. Cranch, from the New York Public Library.
Burning of Barnum's Museum, July 13, 1865 By C. P. Cranch, from the New York Public Library.


However, the museum yet again burned to the ground in 1868 and was not rebuilt. Instead, Barnum took his show on the road, thus founding one of America’s most famous trav­eling circuses and sideshows. [6]

Based on Barnum’s model, entrepreneurs organized exhi­bitions of people with physical, mental, and behavioral dis­abilities or impairments to attract the public and generate a profit. Many times they advertised these exhibitions as edu­cational and scientific. Barnum’s museum and others like it became known as dime museums. Often, they housed gaffes or fake objects and people, and were little more than a circus or carnival sideshow exhibit. While people likely did not conflate museums with sideshows, the sideshows generally billed themselves as educational, and the sideshow did grow out of the dime museum tradition. [7]

These exhibitions allowed the general population to see “dioramas, panoramas, georamas, cosmoramas, paintings, relics, freaks, stuffed animals, menageries, waxworks, and theatrical performance.” The museums served as escapes for Victorian Americans who suddenly had leisure time thanks in part to the industrial revolution. For many, the word “mu­seum” thus became irrevocably associated with the weird, strange, and unknown since many of the sideshows and at­tractions were erroneously labeled museums. [8]


Freakshows and Humanity

Once the sideshow or freakshow became an entity of its own, organizers named the people integral to these attrac­tions curiosities, rarities, oddities, wonders, mistakes, prodi­gies, special people, and even monsters. The bally shouters and fair organizers categorized performers into different races and natural mistakes, such as giants, people without arms or legs, obese, conjoined twins, “wild” men hailed to have been from foreign and unexplored lands, little people, albinos, and more. People with physical disabilities or anomalies were generally called “born different” peoples, unlike those who were “made freaks” by swallowing swords or nailing objects into their heads. [9]


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


By labeling a person a freak, the sideshow removed the humanity of the performer because he or she might not have the same physical characteristics of the “normal” person, and authorized 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 their humanity. [10]

Primary sources reveal little criticism of the exhibition of people with disabilities. Instead, many scientists and doctors accepted and assisted such displays as educational experiences, and they attended the exhibits as well to exam­ine and comment on them. Though scientists studied the people in the exhibits and wrote articles about them, none of the articles critique the display of people with disabilities for public amusement and entertainment.11

In Boston in 1850, the popular exhibition of Maximo and Bartola, the Aztec Children, featured them dressed in outfits with Aztec designs and feathers, was an immediate success not only among the public but also with the scien­tific community. One observer claimed that to everyone the children were “subjects deserving of careful scrutiny and thoughtful observation…they must be objects of vivid interest.” The fact that the children seemed to be severely cognitively impaired was not addressed in the booklet that accompanied the exhibit or by observers. [12]

Eventually, in 1985, the complaints of concerned citi­zens prompted the last remaining freakshow, New York State Fair’s Sutton Sideshow attraction, to be moved away from the midway of the park. The term “freak” was no longer an acceptable term for people with disabilities in the amusement industry. This reaction recognized the reality that freakshows were crude, exploitative, and somewhat embarrassing to society; it has even been called the “pornography of disability.” [13]


Impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act

In 1988, historian Robert Bogdan argued that the freak­show was a dying exhibition style that would not be around for much longer for financial reasons and propriety’s sake. In 1990, Congress approved the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was the first major legisla­tion that provided a promise of equality to all people with disabili­ties. However, Arelene Mayerson argued in “The History of the ADA: A Movement Perspective,” the ADA did not begin with the congressional legislation of 1990. It began much earlier with the people and communi­ties that fought against discrimination. [14]

Legally, the shift towards disability equality began in 1973 when Congress passed Section 504: the Rehabilitation Act, which banned discrimination based on disability for the receiving of federal funds. Following this action the disabil­ity civil rights movement gained momentum, and in 1988, the Americans with Disabilities Act first appeared before Congress. In 1990, Congress passed the act giving rights to people with disabilities that had previously not been guaran­teed by federal law. Essentially, the law protected against dis­ability discrimination in employment; public services, public accommodation, and services operated by private entities; transportation; and telecommunications.

Interestingly, as institutions and citizens grew accustomed to compliance with ADA requirements, the freakshow re­appeared in American popular culture, albeit in a different format. This was especially true at Brooklyn’s Coney Island. The reboot of sideshows and freaks in the United States focuses more on “self-made” freaks than “born-differents.” This suggests that people who are considered to be freakish in some way by societies are embracing the term and using the title as a power term.

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. Writing in Disability Quarterly Studies in 2005, Elizabeth Stephens details the differences between those born with a disability and those who are “made freaks.” She adds, “The wonder and anxiety generated by the body of the self-made freak arises not from the randomness of its physical difference, as responses to the ‘born’ freak did, but at its celebration of different capabilities and aesthetics.” [15]

The freakshow revival is not just apparent at Coney Island. In fall 2012, a new television program Freakshow pre­miered on the American Movie Channel. The show follows the Venice Beach Freakshow performers in a reality show format. Its trailer features several individuals with physical disabilities. The main character, owner, and performer Todd Ray notes, “Freak is one of the most positive words I can think of; for us freak means normal.” [16]

Coney Island is banking on the freakshow, in part to continue to fuel a resurgence of popu­larity among locals and tourists. Coney Island USA has been work­ing to revitalize the area for many years. On the boardwalk, the organization houses a museum, a sideshow, and a freak bar for visi­tors to experience aspects of Coney Island at its prime.



Signs inside Coney Island, USA’s Freak Bar directing visitors to the Sideshow or Museum. By Katie Stringer.
Signs inside Coney Island, USA’s Freak Bar directing visitors to the Sideshow or Museum. By Katie Stringer.


The museum contains information about the history of Coney Island, some examples of gaffes that were popular in sideshows, and even a cyclorama that portrays the burning of Dreamland in the early twentieth century.

A board of directors operates Coney Island USA. Its board chair in 2012 when I visited, was Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum, 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. Dr. Birnbaum has also studied sideshow performers, congenital malformations, disabilities, and the medical community. [17]

Today, Coney Island still operates one of the only side­shows in the country. Its website proclaims, “Sideshows by the Seashore is the last permanently housed place in the United States 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!” In an age of ADA, disability rights, and varying degrees of political correctness, it can be hard to see how a sideshow can fit into the modern world. In May 2012, Coney Island USA had just completed its annual Congress of Curious Peoples, at which there are exhibitions of people, speeches, parties, and inductions into the Sideshow Hall of Fame for such categories as “Born Differents” and “Self Inflicted.”18

Dr. Birnbaum shared information about several people he knows who participate in sideshows or other types of shows to raise awareness about disability issues. Matt Fraser is to the sideshow world a “seal boy” or person with phocomalia, and he is also a disability rights activist who uses his dis­ability in his performance. He uses his impairment to make the audience uncomfortable for laughing and having fun, since almost all people are conditioned to ignore or remain sympathetic toward people with disabilities. [19]

An interview with Jason Black from Austin, Texas, addressed key questions about disabil­ity and the sideshow in today’s world. Black is known in the sideshow and entertainment world as the Black Scorpion, and in the past he may have been known as a human lobster because of his impairment. Black is affected by ectrodactyly, an attribute present at birth in which one or more digits from the hand or foot is missing, and the effect is a claw-like appearance. Black commented in an email, “I am the Black Scorpion. I do participate in freakshow/sideshow perfor­mances…. The world I’ve grown up in is one that can be, at times, hardheaded and difficult to communicate with, because of preconceived notions or thoughts, if you will, as to who someone with different [fill in the blank] is sup­posed to be…. 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.” The world in which Black grew up is very different from that of his predecessors in the side­show experience. Rather than displaying himself simply as a freak, Black tries to change people’s impressions of freaks. [20]

When asked how things might have been different if he had lived during the peak of sideshows, Black remarked, “I probably would have made more money, owned a show, and my act would have been slightly different…or I may have been chased by an angry mob of villager—with pitch­forks and torches into a barn only to be silently killed by my creator.” Though this may be an exaggeration, the changes from the past to today remain evident. Black replied to a question about exploitation of himself and his disability in his show. “I think when folks see my act, the word ‘exploit’ doesn’t really cross their minds, though I could be wrong…. 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.” [21]

Dr. Birnbaum explained that in the past, the disability community often viewed people who performed as taking part in something equal to pornography. Today, however, many in this population see it as a “rock ‘n’ roll career.” Rather than the negative stigma originally associated with the term “freak,” today many people in the sideshow com­munity embrace the term. In New York City and along the east coast, many people seek out the unofficial mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, in hopes that they will be chosen to appear at Sideshows by the Seashore. [22]

Though Coney Island does not employ any people with intellectual disabilities as performers, Dr. Birnbaum divulged a story about a child with microcephaly born in New York City but abandoned at a local hospital. A hospital worker knew of Birnbaum’s interest in sideshows and his work with Coney Island, and the hospital employee asked if he would adopt the child to give him a career at Coney Island. Although this is a sec­ond-hand tale from an interview, it does show that people still as­sociate some disabilities with the sideshow and the exhibition of curiosities. [23]



Coney Island USA’s Museum and Sideshows by the Seashore with “Museum” written prominently across the top of the building. By Katie Stringer.
Coney Island USA’s Museum and Sideshows by the Seashore with “Museum” written prominently across the top of the building. By Katie Stringer.


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.

The exploitation of disability in the modern world contin­ues in many ways. While some programs on television may appear to recognize the humanity of people with disabilities, the pointing and staring aspects seem to still pervade soci­ety; the sensational promotional commercials may be the only view that a person has of the people portrayed on any of the shows mentioned above. If that is the case, those people may only see the characters as freaks without humanity. [24]


Lessons for Today’s Museums

Some of the most popular and most-visited museums are a part of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium franchise. These “museums” are sometimes still billed as odditoriums, and though they do not contain living people in their ex­hibits, wax and plastic figures of people who were considered to be freaks are still on display. Most items in the mu­seums are reproductions or gaffes (such as the famous Barnum hoax the Feegee Mermaid). The Ripley’s franchise of museums and exhibits is arguably for enter­tainment, not education, much like the original sideshows and dime museums of the past. The modern Ripley’s fran­chise includes the odditoriums or museums, perhaps the most recognizable of their brand, as well as aquariums, mini-golf, haunted adventures, and mirror mazes, to name a few.

Even today people are still interested in seeing the maca­bre, taboo, or different in so-called respectable museums, even as they were in the past centuries. Today exhibits that display human bodies are popular in several regions. Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds, a German exhibit aimed at exhibiting human anatomy, opened in 1996 and continues to travel in various forms around the world. In this exhibit there are more than 200 specimens, and 26 whole human bodies that have been prepared and posed in diverse poses. Though many of the bodies may have been obtained illegal­ly or at the least unethically, the press reports on the exhibit, even those that were negative, served only to increase the number of visitors to museums. [25]

The success of Body Worlds is apparent in the number of exhibits that imitate the original exhibition: Bodies…The Exhibition, The Amazing Human Body, Body Exploration, and Bodies Revealed, are just a few of the traveling popular ex­hibits that are based on von Hagen’s original work. While these are arguably more scientifically educational than the freakshows of the past, the exhibitions do exploit the bodies of human beings, just as sideshows did throughout the nine­teenth and early twentieth centuries.

In modern museums, even without these bodies exhibits, there are rarely traces of images or displays of people with disabilities in regular permanent exhibits or art. Annie Delin explains that this absence reinforces cultural stereotypes against people with disabilities and conspires to “present a narrow perspective of the existence of disability in history.” Museums that exclude people with disabilities from exhibits, whether they are exhibits themselves as in the past sideshows and dime museums or represented in general exhibits, the museum is discounting an entire segment of visitor population. In most history muse­ums there are not images of people living, working, making art, or anything else in the past; if they are present they are called marvels of nature. [26]

Delin goes on to argue that when people with disabilities are shown in museums, many times they appear only as freaks or beggars. Portraying people as freaks takes away their humanity; even in museums this makes it acceptable to point and stare at people who are differ­ent. Delin states that this makes it pos­sible for ridicule and dehumanizing to take place in the museum. [27]


Lessons for the Field

The question of how museums can combat this imagery of exploitation and entertainment can be answered through effective educational programs, universal de­sign, and the welcoming of the entire public to museums. Rather than displaying those with disabilities as exhibits, museums should strive to tell everyone’s story, include those with disabilities in the exhibit materials itself, and offer equitable experiences to all populations. Many museums are making great strides in these directions, though his­toric structures pose a myriad of challenges to overcome. The Jewish Museum in Manhattan, Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian, the New York Transit Museum, and many children’s museums have great models of accessibil­ity programs and universal design. The time for historic sites, houses, and museums of all shapes and sizes to raise standards in these areas is now, and the opportunities are endless.

There are still several obstacles for educators and ad­ministrators to create inclusive museums and historic sites. Historic sites have many specific difficulties because they are tangibly inaccessible to many people with physical or mul­tiple disabilities. The inclusion of people with disabilities in exhibits or interpretation is still an area that many museums and historic sites could address.

History institutions have changed ex­ponentially throughout the years. Public historians today have the opportunity to enlarge and enhance museum audiences by creating effective, dynamic environments and programs. Simply inviting groups of people with special needs or disabilities to a historic site is not enough. Once the group is at the site, public historians must use their skills of engagement and shared authority to help then teach social and life skills as well as educational. Our organiza­tions also offer the unique opportunity, in many cases, for students to see the historic structures and artifacts that people actually lived in or used in the past that they usually see through history books. Firsthand experiences can help students make those connections that make history and people from the past matter to them.

Though it is rare to find a freakshow today, especially one that displays people with disabilities, it is important for mu­seum professionals to understand that those exhibitions are considered close cousins to modern exhibits and museums. Historic sites and museums are such great places to build community and connections with humanity from the past and today; it would be a shame to continue to exclude the ideas and participation of those who some consider to be dif­ferent. By understanding the past, museum professionals can be more cognizant of their actions and efforts of inclusion.

Katie Stringer graduated in May 2013 with a Ph.D. in Public History (with a concentration in museum management) from Middle Tennessee State University. She is currently a Teaching Association at Coastal Carolina University. In 2014, Rowman & Littlefield published her first book,  Programming for People with Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites, as part of its AASLH book series.



These sources are very helpful for museums to create in­clusive and accessible exhibitions and spaces. The literature is still developing, but these sources are a wonderful start.

  • Majewski, Janice. Part of Your General Public Is Disabled: A Handbook for Guides in Museums, Zoos, and Historic Houses. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.
  • Playforth, Sarah. Resource Disability Portfolio Series. London: Council for Museums, Archives & Libraries, 2003.
  • Sandell, Richard. Museums, Society, Inequality (Museum Meanings). London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Sandell, Richard, Jocelyn Dodd, and Rosemarie Garland- Thomson. Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum. London: Routledge, 2010.
  • Sherman, Daniel J. Museums and Difference. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008.
  1. Robert Bogdan. Freakshow: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 25.
  2. Phineas T. Barnum, An Illustrated Catalogue and Guide Book to Barnum’s American Museum (New York: Wynkoop, Hallenbeck, & Thomas, circa 1860).
  3. Geoffrey Lewis, “The Role of Museums and the Professional Code of Ethics,” in Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook, ed. International Council of Museums. Paris: ICOM, 2010, 2; Hugh H. Genoways and Mary Anne Andrei, Museum Origins: Readings in Early Museum History and Philosophy (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008), 19, 21.
  4. “Disastrous Fire: Total Destruction of Barnum’s American Museum,” New York Times, 14 July 1865; “Barnum’s New Museum Project: Museum Will Contain,” New York Times, 18 July 1865.
  5. Edwin L. Godkin, “A Word About Museums,” The Nation (27 July 1865): 113-14.
  6. “Burning of Barnum’s Museum: List of Losses and Insurances,” New York Times, 4 March 1868.
  7. People with physical disabilities or anomalies are generally called “born dif­ferent” peoples, unlike those who are “made freaks” by swallowing swords or nailing objects into their heads. Today’s freakshows consist mainly of people who are “made freaks” who do dangerous tricks or have a rare talents, though there are some instances of “born differents” still today; See Godkin, 113-14.
  8. Andrea Stulman Dennett, Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 5, 7; More information about the rise and impact of dime museums and entertainment industry as a whole is avail­able in Dennett’s Weird and Wonderful; John Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century; Genoways and Andrei, Museum Origins; Charles C. Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Wilson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art; and Gary Kulik, “Designing the Past: History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present,” in History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, Warren Leon and Roy Rosenweig, eds., 3-37.
  9. Bogdan, 6.
  10. Rachel Adams, Sideshow U.S.A: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 10.
  11. Bogdan, 121.
  12. Ibid., 129, 130.
  13. “Sideshow Freaks a Vanishing Act,” Bangor (Maine) Daily News, 26 August 1985; Bogdan, 2.
  14. Arlene Mayerson, “The History of the ADA: A Movement Perspective,” Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, 1992.
  15. Elizabeth Stephens, “Twenty-First Century Freakshow: Recent Transformations in the Exhibition of Non-Normative Bodies,” Disability Quarterly Studies 25 (Summer 2005): 1.
  16. AMC Network Entertainment, Freakshow, www.amctv.com/shows/freakshow.
  17. Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum, interview by author, Coney Island, NY, 10 May 2012. Interview summary available online at: http://on.aaslh.org/Stringer-Birnbaum.
  18. Coney Island U.S.A., “Coney Island Circus Sideshow,” www.coneyisland. com/sideshow.
  19. The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) describes phoco­malia as “a rare birth defect that causes severe birth defects, especially of the upper limbs. The bones of the arms, and in some cases other appendages, may be extremely shortened and even absent. The fingers of the hands may be fused. An extreme case results in the absence of the upper bones of both the arms and legs so that the hands and feet appear attached directly to the body.” See http://on.aaslh. org/phocomalia. In sideshows and freakshows, people with phocomalia are called “seal boys” or “lobster children” because of the physical characteristics of their disorder; Birnbaum interview.
  20. Jason Black, email interview by author, 28 August 2012. Summary online at http://on.aaslh.org/StringerBlackScorpion; Organization for Rare Disorders, “Rare Disease Information,” http://on.aaslh.org/RareDiseaseInfo.
  21. Black interview.
  22. Birnbaum interview.
  23. Coney Island does not employ those with intellectual disability as perform­ers, however, it is interesting to note that radio host Howard Stern has employed a person with microcephaly and severe intellectual disability. Lester Green, called Beetlejuice, attends functions and performances with Stern and is generally seen as a comedic entertainer; Birnbaum interview.
  24. The question of exploitation in the modern world is addressed by Annie Delin, who states, in reference to exhibits and portrayals, “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.” From 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), 89.
  25. Peter M. McIsaac, “Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds: Exhibitionary Practice, German History, and Difference” by in Museums and Difference edited by Daniel J. Sherman (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008), 153, 160.
  26. Delin, 84-85.
  27. Ibid., 86, 89