Woohoo, new series! As a future museum studies/public history student and professional, I figured it behooved me to go out and spend some time soaking up some museums. I’m already studying and volunteering, but I’m interested in seeing the different exhibits both for my own enjoyment/education and to see how they’re being done. I’m hoping to do a Museum Visit post about once a month. (I’m moving into a more organized blog structure and schedule soon, but more on that at a later date!)
This visit in particular wasn’t to a museum per se, but a Disability History Exhibit presented by Disability Rights and Resources in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. I happened to hear about the organization at a service fair on campus, and chose to do this first since it’s only open for a limited time. I’m not connected with DRR and make no representation of the quality of their services. The exhibit is on loan from People First of Alabama, and I have no knowledge of them either.
On to the exhibit. It consists of 22 panels like those in the picture above. They wind around the DRR lobby, but the order is clearly labeled. Each panel has relevant paintings or photographs accompanying color-coded text (for moral, medical, and social points of view), along with quotes and pullout text marked “Stereotype:” or “Social value:” etc., explaining the context of the time. A timeline runs across the bottom of the display.
There’s really a ton of information here, going from early religious impressions of the “purpose” of a disability, through medical models that turned people into permanent patients or objects of study, then from permanent patients into inmates, especially with the interest in genetics and eugenics in the early 20th century. Roughly the second half of the exhibit goes through different aspects of civil rights movements and modern self-advocacy movements.
I thought they did a great job of presenting their chosen narrative, drawing in milestones in the history of disability rights but also more elusive content like social perceptions and the inception of ideas. The display is engaging, a great balance of illustrative photos, explanatory text, and revealing quotes. I was especially impressed at how carefully the photos had been chosen to add value to the experience, not just for the sake of having a picture there. I did notice a few typos in the text… Not the end of the world, but since the text drives the exhibit, the absence of typos would be a helpful thing. There’s also a strong agenda, but I have no problem with that since it’s clearly identified and there are huge signs naming the sponsoring institutions.
The one thing that actually bothers me is it would’ve been a great digital history project, better than a physical one. There aren’t any physical objects to interact with, so the whole thing could be digitized. That would allow users from anywhere in the world to access it, read at their own pace, and click links to related information from another time period (or maybe more details on another site or something), all without having to stand in a lobby and read something on a wall for 45 minutes. It’s already visually sleek and modern-looking with a good flow of information, and it seems to me it would translate to the web with a minimum of extra effort. A website could also offer some different accessibility options, although there is an audio tour available.
All together, it was an interesting exhibit and I do feel like I learned a few things. It was coherent and visually engaging, and promoting understanding of the historical treatment of people with disabilities is a helpful thing. The exhibit will be available in the Disability Rights and Resources lobby in downtown Birmingham through May 9, 2014. Admission is free. Go to http://drradvocates.org/disability-history-exhibit for more information!
For some further reading on perceptions of disability, check out Rose B. Fischer’s “Redefining Disability” blog series.