Disability Exhibition Under Construction and Revision
Excerpt from "The Making of a Disability Heritage Exhibit" in The Activist History Review:
“Why is it that we, as a society, continue to feel the need to hide the fact that disabilities do exist, have existed for thousands of years, and that almost everybody has a form of disability?” – Yahssyniah Pitts, Fitchburg State University Undergraduate
As a disability studies scholar, I have been focused in the last few years on how disability heritage is represented in cultural spaces. In this research, I have looked mostly at New England museums generally, and then world museums that specialize in my main area of focus, the premodern or medieval era. The primary takeaway of my exploration has been that the heritage of disability and the disabled is all too often overlooked or represented in simplified ways. As a point of reference, the United States has no national museum dedicated to disability (although the idea is perhaps in development). The reasons for this lack of representation are multiple and complex. Sometimes, it is a matter of resources and priorities. But in other cases it is more emotional, a sense of discomfort with the topic, a reaction that perpetuates the stigma that surrounds the disabled. No matter the reasons, this lack of representation serves to erase a significant group of people from history. As scholar Daniel Blackie remarked on Twitter, we need to “do a better job of representing the lives of disabled people” in heritage spaces.
Fitchburg State University (FSU) undergraduate Neriliz Wilkins comments, “Most of the problems that are encountered begin with the simple fact that there is not enough awareness to make our communities more inclusive of all people.” With that in mind, ENGL 1100 Writing I students at FSU are seeking to raise that awareness by studying the disability history of our community in parallel with premodern disability history in order to create a public exhibit for display at the university and other venues.
This course, a first-year composition class, focuses on building the foundational skills necessary for academic and other professional writing. Rather than workshopping traditional writing assignments, students are participating in the development of a disability-themed exhibit under the auspices of Cultural Heritage through Image, a project I have facilitated since 2016. Cultural Heritage though Image uses photography to connect ancient and medieval cultural heritage of other countries to the cultural heritage of local communities, particularly in New England.
The completed disability-themed exhibition will combine local history artifacts and stories with medieval disability artifacts and stories in order to highlight the lineage of disability and its presence throughout history.
As we write catalog entries to gather these artifacts into an exhibit and then interpret the connections that will emerge in exhibition guide essays, we hope to raise questions for the audience, to allow those who are disabled to see themselves in the story. “With museums and other important landmarks that can be established,” student Chase Carlson comments, “we could make an effort to fully reach all corners of the world and represent not just the topic of disability but the people themselves.” Christine Nibitanga continues, “A disability museum is important in our society because it would promote a greater level of social awareness and understanding, a definite change in mind and attitudes, with an end result of people with disabilities feeling included in their communities and everywhere else.” The primary purposes of this exhibit are to engage viewers in conversations about the history of disability and explore how more distant heritage connects with the local, but, more importantly, to help make visible a heritage that is all too often marginalized and forgotten.
“Since society has such a large cognitive dissonance about physical and mental impairments, the benefit of having historical disability in museums would infinitely raise awareness, knowledge, and acceptance.” – Marissa Ladderbush, Fitchburg State University Undergraduate
--Kisha G. Tracy