A Review of the Disability History Museum

One of the items on my list of things to try for the blog is, "Explore the Disability History Museum. I haven't spent a lot of time exploring virtual museums, and to be honest, I don't really know what makes them different from fancy websites. This seems like a good place to start."
I don't find a lot of value in calling an online museum that does not have its own collections a "museum." The way they describe their library holdings (under the "Library" tab on the site) is confusing -- it's actually more of an index to collections that are in the public domain or posted with permission of the actual holder of the material or copyright. In browsing through their collections, finding citation information is hit or miss. For the items that did refer to a source, finding information on how to cite that source was a several-step process, and at least some of the time it involves some Googling. Maybe that's not a big deal to many viewers, but since I use museum and library collections for research on a regular basis, it's something I care about, and researchers are typically part of a museum or library's core audience, if not a big proportion of visitors. 

I'm a bit torn. I also don't find a lot of value in quibbling over the definition of "museum," and I do think that the issue with finding citations would be a problem whether or not they used the words museum and library. However, I think I'd be less bothered by my difficulties with the site if it wasn't called a museum, and that tab wasn't called library. I guess to me, being a museum and library sets the expectation that it can be a tool for research. The fact that the website is less useful than I want it to be doesn't make it not a museum or library -- plenty of museums' and libraries' catalogs are frustrating, because of lack of funding or staff time, priorities, or poorly managing users' conflicting needs. The website can be a museum or library that isn't good at being a tool for research. If it weren't called a museum and that tab weren't called library, on the other hand, I wouldn't necessarily expect a research tool, and any research value it did have would feel like a bonus. So, I think the reason I care about what the website called is really about expectations management. That's important, but words like "museum" don't convey the same thing to everyone, so it's not like there's one solution to the problem of managing visitor expectations. 

As a side note, the museum world sometimes gets into a similar terminology debate about what to call "visitors" -- what are the implications of "visitor" vs. "guest," "audience," "patron," "constituent," etc. in discussions about who the museum is for and who has authority there? It's simultaneously very important to talk about the expectations set by those words, and very easy to slip into just splitting hairs. 

So, on to the site itself. The first time I explored the website a little bit, not long after putting the blog list together, I was unimpressed, but thought it was clearly a work in progress. The exhibits section was "coming soon." The website is a project of the media production nonprofit Straight Ahead Pictures, and a little too much of the website felt like an advertisement for the parent organization. Still, the work being done is really important; there aren't a lot of good resources for the general public on the history and culture of disability in America. This is probably not a full-time project for anyone involved, it's grant-funded to the extent that it's funded at all, and that's a symptom of how disability history tends to be marginalized, not something this project should be blamed for. 

It appears to be a late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century political cartoon of someone white-washing over a memorial, but the detail is poor and it's hard to make out the words.
The image advertising the exhibit-in-progress on disabled educator Anne Sullivan
Three years later, I've explored the site more deeply. They've redone a lot of the website, which at first I was pleased by, but they still don't have any online exhibits. They do have a number of lesson plans on various topics in disability and government, the history of sign language, and social movements. It looks like there are seven lesson plans in total, although navigating that part of the site is a bit confusing; it seems like it's set up to have many more lesson plans than it has. I'm not the best person to evaluate lesson plans, but they look useful, with goals, readings, discussion questions, and bibliographies. It seems like they focus more on the work of nondisabled nineteenth century advocates, but hopefully, they'll have more soon. The website still advertises the museum store on every page, and that store exclusively sells things produced by the parent organization. This isn't bad, just another expectations-setting thing.

Overall, my impression on the Disability History Museum is that it's not a bad resource, but not the first resource I'd recommend, either. The Museum of DisABILITY History in Buffalo, NY has a more useful online museum-website (I haven't been to the physical museum, and the name feels uncomfortably 1990's, but what can you do). If you're in greater Boston, I recommend the Perkins Museum at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, which covers some of the same material that the Disability History Museum's lesson plans do. The exhibits feel a little old-fashioned, but they're still good. For scholarly resources, there's Disability Studies Quarterly, which has articles on current topics as well as history.