October 2019

The Making of a Disability Heritage Exhibit

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.

by Kisha G. Tracy

“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[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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. The content will consist of images of related sites and/or artifacts. These images will either be taken by myself or solicited from various institutions. These then will be paired with local disability history artifacts, particularly from the Fitchburg Historical Society and the FSU archives. These pairings will be accompanied by researched narratives, using both primary and secondary sources, to present the story of historical disability and the connections across chronology and geography. As with all work in Cultural Heritage through Image and in line with the project’s collaborative mission, the narratives will be written and the images of local heritage will be taken by students and community members. The exhibition is already scheduled for display in two venues, on FSU campus, for our 125th Anniversary celebrations, and in the Spaulding R. Aldrich Heritage Gallery at Open Sky Community Services in Whitinsville, MA.

While the Writing I students will not complete all of the work for the exhibit in one semester, they will be making significant contributions, shaping the nature of the exhibition. Students began the semester by learning about disability studies through various readings, including Tom Shakespeare’s Disability (The Basics), and how to recognize and apply various principles. As a class, they have specifically gravitated towards issues of access as well as representation, discussing both modern and historical understandings of and approaches to the social aspects of disability.

In addition to discussions, students had the opportunity to interact with various guests. They met and learned from our university Director of Disability Services, Katrina Durham, in order to get a sense of the local history and context of services on our campus. FSU offers a Disability Studies minor, and students received an introduction to the philosophy and requirements of that program from our interdisciplinary minors coordinator, Dr. Frank Mabee. In order to start thinking about what the final exhibition might look like and how it fits in with the university anniversary celebrations, the librarian in charge of the Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio Library gallery spaces, Connie Strittmater, walked students through past types of exhibits, and a representative from the anniversary committee, Matthew Bruun, Director of Public Relations, explained the organization of the celebrations, particularly the university’s desire to highlight student work throughout our history.

After reading and thinking about disability as a larger topic, we have turned as a class to the process of cataloging artifacts that will be gathered together for the digital exhibition and will potentially be a part of the physical ones. This cataloging phase will be completed in three parts. We have started with artifacts from the Fitchburg Historical Society (FHS). The Executive Director of FHS, Susan Navarre, gathered a number of artifacts with a variety of connections to disability that have not previously received much attention. These range from the work of a Fitchburg organization in the 1970’s and 80’s, Citizens to Remove Architectural and Attitudinal Barriers (C.R.A.A.B.), to prominent citizens with disabilities, including a deaf Olympic star. The oldest artifact is the transcript of a speech from the late 1800’s that makes allusions to the depression experienced by a local preacher. Students examined these artifacts, asked questions of Navarre, and then each selected their own artifact to catalog. They are writing substantial catalog entries that think about the specific details of the artifacts, how these artifacts connect to disability in larger ways, and how they fit together to form a narrative for the exhibit. These entries will be provided to the FHS to assist with any future work they will do on the topic.

The Writing Associate for this course, Autumn Battista, a senior English Studies major and a frequent participant in the Cultural Heritage through Image project, completed a catalog entry both for the project as well as to serve as an example for students. She selected a 1985 mini-newsletter from the C.R.A.A.B. organization. In Autumn’s catalog entry, she highlights the idea that the “group was very interested in being inclusive and they were very focused on making the members of the club feel connected to the larger community.” These are the types of observations and themes that the students are encouraged to pursue.

C.R.A.A.B. (Citizens to Remove Architectural and Attitudinal Barriers) Mini Notes January-February 1985 Progress Update Notice (Fitchburg Historical Society)

After cataloging the Historical Society artifacts, we will turn to artifacts from the Fitchburg State Archives, working with the University Archivist, Asher Jackson. These artifacts will include plans and permits to make older buildings on campus accessible as well as the historical documents, including newspaper clippings, of the Disability and Counseling Services Offices. Students will have options to pursue connections of disability with our Veterans Center and Department of Education. One artifact may even be a service dog belonging to an alum of the university who attended classes with her.

The final cataloging activity will involve premodern artifacts. In my professional and personal travels, I have visited a number of locations related to medieval disability as well as museums with relevant collections. Having engaged in a brief introduction to historical disability, students will select from these artifacts. Examples include the discovery of Richard III’s body, the church in Geel, Belgium dedicated to Saint Dymphna (the medieval saint associated with mental illness), a stained glass window at Lincoln Cathedral depicting the treatment of leprosy, depictions of medieval guide dogs, badges received by pilgrims visiting holy sites, and a Putchu Guinadji, figures worn for generations by the African Kotoko to draw out and contain spectres of mental health. The focus of these catalog entries will include parallels with the previous artifacts from other time periods and geographies, demonstrating the themes that connect people together.

Archaeological Site, Discovery of King Richard III, Scoliosis (Richard III Visitor Centre)
Saint Healing a Leper (Lincoln Cathedral)

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 is an Associate Professor of English Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, specializing in early British and world literatures. She received her Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Connecticut. In addition to several articles, her first book, Memory and Confession in Middle English Literature, was published by Palgrave in 2017. Her main research interests include medieval disability, particularly mental disability, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Further Reading

[1] Many of the quotations in this essay are from students in my fall 2019 ENGL 1100 Writing I course at Fitchburg State University who are building this exhibit.

[2] See my article “Trauma and New England Museums,” in The State of Museums:Voices from the Field, eds. Rebekah Beaulieu, Dawn E Salerno, Mark S. Gold (Cambridge: MuseumsEtc, 2018), 43-64.

[3] The project includes physical and digital exhibitions as well as related presentations and events. For further information, see the digital exhibition, which is a continual work in progress as students and community members regularly add to it. The project has presented full exhibitions at the Fitchburg Art Museum, the Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio Library at FSU, and the Hammond Castle Museum in Gloucester, MA. In addition, Cultural Heritage through Image also has presented themed exhibitions, including one on women for the Women in Arts event at FSU and another on Africans and African-Americans for the African Festival of Boston (part of the entries for the Festival exhibition developed from a partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts Boston to highlight their Nubian collection). Cultural Heritage through Image has become a successful public engagement project, starting with the work of students from a variety of disciplines (English Studies, Art, History, Photography, Communications Media, Disability Studies, etc.) and expanding into the community via the historical society, library, art museum, the Boys and Girls Club, and adult learning programs. We have received funding or assistance of other kinds from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area, and FSU.

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