“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 is 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: given the opportunity to participate and be self-determining, people with disabilities bring many abilities that are socially useful. All museums have purposes. Ours also has this 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 reference library in the basement of our facility, which have been of use to academic researchers. Our catalog records reveal over 8,000 entries, some of them conglomerate collections, compromised of documents, public records and clippings, published books, photographs, and physical objects. Members of the general public have consulted these collections, which proven especially useful 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 that a museum dedicated to disability can be a surprise on first reflection. Viewers expect perhaps artificial arms and legs, cereal boxes with photos of disabled athletes, and television and movie promotions featuring cast member 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 for those diagnosed with psychological illnesses. After Willard closed in 1995, 500 suitcases belonging to those who were resident were found in the vast, long sealed attic. The contents of these suitcases 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, with the assistance of the Community Consortium.
“Where are the suitcases?’ we were frequently asked by visitors, who have the craving for authenticity familiar to those who work in museums, They have been 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, because of questions about legal ownership and in connection with that, concerns about protecting the identities of their owners. The New York State Museum is now attempting to locate descendants or more distant relatives of the suitcase owners, and return these possessions to them.
After long negotiations, involving legal issues touching on these privacy and ownership questions, the Museum of disAbility History has managed with the needed permission of a surviving relative of one of the suitcase owners and the cooperation of the New York State Museum, to take possession on-loan of the suitcase of a former resident of Willard. Lawrence Mocha, an immigrant from Austria-Hungary, was 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 disproportionate 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 the 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.
The rollout for the exhibit of Mr. Mocha’s suitcase will occur at the Museum of disAbility History on 18 October 2018. We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of the Community Consortium and of the New York State Museum.
David Gerber, Chair, Board of Trustees, Museum of disAbility History