EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America

People with disabilities have been present throughout American history, but rarely appear in textbooks or shared public memories. Curator Katherine Ott introduces a new online exhibition that helps us understand the American experience and reveals how complicated history really is.

Over 100 years ago, an African American woman named Sarah Savage did something that caused her to be institutionalized at Central State Hospital, a "lunatic asylum" in Milledgeville, Georgia. She died there in 1882. Little else is known about her—when and where she was born, who she loved and who loved her, how she died, and what got her locked up. We don't even know if marker #72 belongs to her or a white man named Nathaniel Cowart—the cemetery was segregated and burial numbers used twice.

 

Possibly this is Sarah Savage’s rusted iron grave marker, #72 from Central State Hospital, Georgia
Possibly this is Sarah Savage's rusted iron grave marker, #72 from Central State Hospital, Georgia

In the 1860s or 1870s, Benjamin Franklin was caught in a freezing storm in the Dakota Territory, lost his hands and feet to frostbite, and afterwards made a living selling cartes-de-visite (small photographs printed on thick paper cards) of himself.

 

 Carte-de-visite depicting Benjamin Franklin (no relation to the founding father), who lost his hands and feet to frostbite
Carte-de-visite depicting Benjamin Franklin (no relation to the founding father), who lost his hands and feet to frostbite

There are thousands upon thousands of such stories about people with disabilities that never make it into the history books. To broaden the familiar narratives of American history and give presence to some of the "disappeared" in American history, we created an online exhibition about disability drawn from the museum's collections. The online exhibition is at the center of the museum's work in unraveling the intricate ways in which stigma, rights, and everyday realities intertwine.

The museum has dozens of photographic images of people with disabilities. We know neither the name nor circumstances of most of them. Being anonymous or forgotten does not mean that you are invisible. We can piece together past experiences by combining what the image tells us (about age, clothing, location, era, activity) with what we know about the history of disability in America. Such things as surfaced roads, escalators and elevators, the internet, as well as the closing of asylums and even the availability of inexpensive eye-glasses and a host of medical treatments have created circumstances that enabled political and social change. Our artifacts can explain events such as protests, hospitalization, first communion, and graduation and what they meant in the lives of people. Artifacts give shape and substance to historical experiences in ways that retrieve stories of those who did not have the resources, support, or power to leave a mark.

 

Two of the "EveryBody" posters available for download. The posters come in black and white as well as color and are available in both English and Spanish.
Two of the "EveryBody" posters available for download. The posters come in black and white as well as color and are available in both English and Spanish.

We will be blogging on relevant topics and objects, adding new material, and hosting chats and interviews on the site. We have included a set of six different posters (in Spanish and English) that everyone can download and print. We encourage you to post them in your classroom, home, or office and add a photo of your poster on display to our Flickr group. We'll pin them to our Pinterest board.

We welcome other ideas about how to use the site. The history of disability is varied, rich and surprising. The EveryBody online exhibition illustrates that there is much more to it than sideshows and special parking privileges.

Katherine Ott is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science. She has also blogged about dental history in the museum's collection.

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Posted at 11:35 am EDT in From the Collections,On the Web