Museums Have a Lot to Learn From the Field of Disability Studies, Pt I.

Curators at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History all have stories to tell of people who show up […]

Curators at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History all have stories to tell of people who show up with a family heirloom to donate to the collection: great-aunt Millie’s wedding dress, a sewing machine found in a country cabin, a hand-carved wooden leg, a glass eye. The guards are instructed to refuse such offerings. But on May 13, 1995, a security guard at the Castle, the Smithsonian’s administration building, called to say that someone had left a beat-up wheelchair with a note saying that it was to be donated to the American-history museum. It turned out that the chair belonged to Ed Roberts, a founder and deeply respected leader of the disability-rights movement from the mid-’60s until his death, in March

1995. The wheelchair had been left by a friend following a memorial service for Roberts at the Rayburn House Office Building. As curators deliberated about the disposition of the chair, they came to learn not only how renowned Roberts had been among disabled people, but also how little they or other museums had done to illuminate and explicate the history of disability in the United States.

Meanwhile, in other offices in the vicinity of the Mall, the focus was on another person’s wheelchair — or rather on the representation of the one that had belonged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. News reports usually reduced the issue to whether a memorial to F.D.R. should depict him using a wheelchair. Yet a more complex dialogue occurred among academics, activists, and museum officials over the need for historical accuracy in memorials, the ways that the presence or absence of the chair would affect the symbolic qualities of this memorial, and whether the absence of the chair would say more about a need in our own time to hide Roosevelt’s disability, or about the desire during his own era to do so.

The discussions about Roberts’s and Roosevelt’s wheelchairs are indicative of a dialogue that is emerging in cultural and academic institutions across the United States. I am a disabled woman, and I find the debates compelling, not just for what they say about the position of disabled people in our society, but also for how they make us think about the representation of disability.

An event taking place this week offers a useful starting point for exploring those issues. The Smithsonian is sponsoring a conference on “Disability and the Practice of Public History,” for curatorial and educational staff members of museums, scholars in academe, public historians, and activists. Coincidentally, the conference begins on May 13, just four years to the day since the perplexing arrival of Ed Roberts’s wheelchair at the Smithsonian. (The conference’s site on the World-Wide Web is http://www.si.edu/nmah/youmus/dpph.htm)

The conference is geared toward exploring the subject of disability in museums of history, but a similar meeting could be organized for personnel in museums that focus on art, science, natural history, children, and more. Such meetings could address a number of questions that would help museums engage more actively with disability as subject matter. What recent scholarship might help a curator consider the metaphoric, symbolic, or realistic representation of disabled people in a painting? How might a natural-history museum examine adaptation of individuals and species through the lens of disability? What kind of museums or types of exhibits could examine concepts such as eugenics and euthanasia? How might children’s museums create inclusive exhibits so that non-disabled and disabled children could use them together? How might museums assure physical access for people with mobility impairments, and access for people with cognitive, sensory, and other kinds of impairments?

In our discussions on the steering committee for the Smithsonian conference, our starting point was that academic and cultural institutions need to go beyond what they are already doing to respond to legal mandates to make their facilities accessible to disabled people: They need to integrate ideas about people with disabilities into their exhibits, scholarship, and curricula. Too often, museums have focused primarily on providing access to their buildings and to their public-education programs, but have paid scant attention to the content of their exhibits and what those presentations say — or don’t say — about disability. Similarly, colleges and universities and their faculty members have tried, with varying degrees of sincerity, to make their facilities and courses available to disabled people, but have not, in general, integrated material from disability studies into their curricula.

I’d like to suggest that access and content are “of a piece,” rather than separate endeavors. Museum buildings and exhibit designs are not neutral; they are “read” by visitors and shape the way that all people interact with the contents of a museum. The imposing federal and Greek-revival design of many traditional museums create the look of a venerable fortress, designed to protect art and edify visitors. The imposing sets of stairs that lead into such museums tell us who is invited and who is not.

In contrast, consider the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. No stringent access codes were in place when Frank Lloyd Wright designed the building, and I doubt that he conceptualized the grand spiral ramp as a wheelchair-access feature. But I use a wheelchair and can report the visceral excitement that I feel when I descend the spiral, and I know that it influences the way in which I interact with the art. Further, I have visited the museum in a manual wheelchair and in a motorized one, and the experiences are quite different. In the manual chair, I tend to move quickly, because of the effort it takes to brake and slow my progress. In the power chair, although it is capable of going very fast, I tend to go at a slower pace and stop more frequently. When anyone moves quickly through an exhibit, whether walking or riding, the themes of the show, or the progression of a single artist’s work over time, are more apparent. A slower pace, on the other hand, helps focus attention on individual pieces. Museums would do well to consider how designs like the Guggenheim’s shape the experience of content, and the way that disability interacts with those elements.

Simi Linton is the co-director of the Disability Studies Project at Hunter College of the City University of New York, a consultant on disability and the arts, and the author of Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (New York University Press, 1998)