“There’s a museum about that?” is a question we sometimes get when telling people about the Museum of disAbility History, on line at http:// museum of disability.org/ and in our building at 3826 Main Street in Amherst, New York. A twenty year old project of People Inc., the largest disability service provider in Western New York, the museum was founded to spread understanding of disabilities and the lives of people who possess them. It is the only brick and mortar museum dedicated to the history of disability in the United States.
Disability has a long, complicated history, and it has been our task to interpret the wide, frequently changing variety of understandings over time in Western societies of what has been regarded as the normal body and mind. The peculiar spelling of “disAbility” in our title projects these hopes: it is intended to suggest what society has come increasingly to understand in recent decades: given the opportunity to participate, people with disabilities bring many abilities that are socially useful. All museums have purposes. Ours also has a mission.
The museum occupies much of the ground floor of a building dedicated to People Inc.’s training program, and has exhibits largely consisting of tall panels with explanatory texts and illustrations and of material artifacts. We also have an expanding archive and a small reference library in the basement of our facility, which have been of use to students and academic researchers. Members of the general public have consulted these collections, which are useful, for example, in tracking family and friends who were once institutionalized in now closed state institutions and perhaps buried in unmarked graves on the site of those facilities.
The range of artifacts in a museum dedicated to disability may be predictable on first reflection. Viewers expect artificial arms and legs, crutches and wheelchairs,breakfast cereal boxes with photos of disabled athletes, and television and movie promotions featuring cast members with disabilities. But a recent acquisition may be more of a surprise. It tells complex and engaging stories.
The New York State Museum mounted an exhibit, The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from A State Hospital in 2004 based on the unique artifacts found at Willard State Hospital, a New York State institution established in 1869 for those diagnosed with psychological illnesses. After Willard closed in 1995, 427 suitcases belonging to those who were resident were found in the vast, long sealed attic. The contents of the 27 suitcases that have been investigated tell poignant personal stories, and illuminate the random processes by which people ended up in such institutions.
With support from the van Ameringen and the Nathan Cummings foundations, a 1500 square foot travelling suitcase exhibit was created in 2004, and it toured the country, going to 30 venues in 11 different states, before it came to reside at the Museum of disAbility History.
“Where are the suitcases?’ we are frequently asked by visitors, who have the craving for authenticity familiar to those who work in museums, They were in the possession of the New York State Museum, which wasn’t going to further display them, but felt legally bound to keep them from further display. After protracted negotiations, involving legal issues touching on privacy and ownership, we have managed with the needed permission of a surviving relative to take possession of the suitcase of Lawrence Mocha. An immigrant from Austria-Hungary, born in 1878 and committed to Willard in 1916, where he resided until his death in 1968, He may have suffered a traumatic brain injury before immigrating, but he was symptom free sufficiently to have been admitted into the United States by immigration officers in 1907. Mocha defies the usual stereotypes about those institutionalized for mental illness. Whatever problems ultimately led him at a certain point in his life to go to Willard, while resident there he carved out an almost independent life for himself as the institution’s much needed cemetery-keeper. He lived on his own in a small house on the grounds, going to meals in the kitchen when he pleased. He was eccentric, but hardly detached from reality, or difficult to get along with.
Mocha’s life after coming to Willard was not that different than many other of its institutionalized people. He got used to living there, and his needs were provided for as they were not reliably on the outside. Like many immigrants – and the foreign-born constituted a disproportional percentage of the institutionalized population – his networks of personal support may well have been fragile or nonexistent. While New York State provided a solution to the problems he had in living independently, like other residents his dignity was preserved to the extent he worked on the grounds, assisting in the maintenance of the complex community that Willard supported. After being there many years, Mocha petitioned to leave, but was denied, perhaps on the basis of doubts that he could live on his own after being provided for so long. It is also said that the authorities recognized that his labor in maintaining the cemetery was needed.
The stories of Mocha and nine other individuals who were the basis of our suitcases exhibit are found in Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, The Lives They Left Behind (2008). Stories of this sort are ones that the Museum of disAbility History is dedicated to telling. Stop in; you’ll be surprised.
David Gerber, Chair, Board of Trustees, Museum of disAbility History