Starting on Monday, I will begin a series of posts about my dissertation and research trip to New York City… but first….
What is the story with this dissertation that I’m writing? I have a feeling that my blog posts are about to start reflecting a lot more about my research and dissertation in the coming months. I don’t presume that any of you have taken the time to read my proposal or bibliography, and looking back at past posts, it doesn’t seem that I ever explicitly stated my intents. So please allow me take a moment to explain…
I am currently researching and writing my dissertation, which is titled, “Serving Under-served Communities in Museums and Historical Organizations: Creating Meaningful Public Programming.”
One of the most simple ways to explain this is to share my abstract, “Throughout history there have been many populations that have been discriminated against or ignored by institutions and organizations of all types. The same is true of museums, and some might argue that those problems still exist today. Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act it seems that museums and historic organizations are still behind in reaching out to and welcoming people with learning or developmental disabilities. This dissertation will explore past and current relationships and attempts at inclusion of people with developmental or cognitive disabilities, and possible alternatives and programming developed specifically for secondary education students who are in special education classrooms at museums and historical organizations. This dissertation will also include a model for museums to use in developing programming and welcoming under-served populations into organizations.”
I can pinpoint the exact moment that this idea first popped into my head. In April of 2011, I was attending the National Council on Public History conference in Pensacola, Florida. Each day we walked through a park, and on one of the last days, my fellow student Rebecca and I were strolling back to the hotel through this park. A group of adults from an assisted living program were having a gathering at the gazebo. As we walked by, I realized that I had not really ever seen programs for children with special needs at museums. I immediately got excited and started spouting out ideas to a confused and excited Rebecca.
Looking back to my own experiences in education departments at museums and historical sites and organizations, I realized that there is a severe lack of opportunities for people with special needs or learning disabilities and in many cases the complete nonexistence of programming for this group of people. Through this process, I will create programs for special education students that help them also see the world as an interconnected, diverse place where all are welcomed to interact and engage with the various communities in existence.
I will present information about how museums react to learning disabled visitors, as well as sensitivity and awareness to issues regarding these visitors, especially at the secondary level. Lastly, I will present a model for museums to use to develop specific programming and exhibits for people with learning disabilities.
The historical context for this dissertation is found in information about institutions such as the Mutter Museum of Medical Curiosities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and at the Sideshows of Coney Island, New York and other places around the world. By looking at the past treatment of people with disabilities by museums and exhibits in the not-so-distant past, where they were essentially treated as exhibits instead of valued visitors, I will investigate the history of these exhibits and offer alternatives to this previous relationship.
The Main Questions that I will address are:
- How people with disabilities, predominantly students in special education classrooms, can be better served by professionals in the public history field, principally through educational programs in museums and historical organizations.
- The past relationship between museums and people with disabilities
- The history of special education
- The history of museums as collections of curiosities
- Why students in special education classes are not taken on more educational field trips
- What the obstacles and challenges are to taking students on field trips, and why field trips to museums or cultural organizations would be beneficial as field trip sites.
- Explore user-friendly tactics for students, teachers, aides, and museum professionals and staff members.
There are several outcomes that I hope to gain from my research and dissertation. First, through historical context I hope to understand how the past informs the present, especially in relation to the way museums view people with disabilities. I also want to create a model for cultural organizations. Once this new model is established and in use, a new audience will be able to visit museums, which benefits the visitors and the museum for obvious reasons. The field trips that will result from the programs will provide new opportunities for special education students and teachers. And lastly, the dissertation will provide guidelines and best practices for sensitivity, awareness, and welcoming new groups to the museum or cultural organization.
This dissertation will also carry over into the future in many ways. I know that within the writing year I will not be able to do everything, so I will have future research problems and questions. I will also need to continue to raise awareness and work on marketing the model to both museums and teachers. Eventually I would like to publish my dissertation either as a manuscript or as separate articles. I’ve also gained a pretty strong interest in freakshows and sideshow, and I would love to write a scholarly article or book about that topic as well. Ideally, this process will lead to consulting and working with cultural organizations to implement programs.
If you or someone you know has experience with special education in museums, please comment below or pass along this survey for special education teachers!
Over the coming weeks, I will be starting to post information about my recent research trip to New York City and other information as it develops. Please join me on this adventure and share your thoughts, ideas, or comments with me!