For the past year or so, Joe and I have added 'museums' to our list of things to do in a city or town that we are weekending in. I know it should have been an obvious choice of activity but it never was for us. On one of our trips to the UK we got hooked on these little excusions into the past. I had checked on the computer and the 'Barnum Museum' was close to where we spent our weekend. On Sunday, after laundry, we headed the 20 or so miles to visit. All we knew of Barnum was the Circus and the famous quote 'there's a sucker born every minute.'
I didn't expect a parallel experience of disability history. And I should have, had I thought about the unholy marriage of the Circus and Freak Shows. The whole first floor of the museum was dedicated to various 'Human Oddities' ... Bearded Ladies, small people, tall people, fat people, disabled people. They were all there, shown in context with Barum's ride to the top of the entertainment world. What was also there was documentation of what Barnum paid these folk. And the fact that their pay grew with their popularity. He never 'owned' any of them, he was anti-slavery and wanted no part of one human owning another.
There was one row of pictures that was quite astonishing. Pictures of many of the 'oddities' that were beautifully posed and expensively mounted. The faces looked out with a sense of pride and defiance. Together they made more than a collection of strange people, they made a community of difference.
I simply do not know how to think of these images or this experience. Years ago I heard a disability academic talk about 'freak shows' as offering employment, money, companionship and most importantly freedom from institutionalization. I hear other voices condemning the shows for being what they were - giving the normal the opportuntity to gawk at the different. As I looked at the pictures, I wondered if Barnam was exploiting those with disabilities or differences, or if he was exploiting the 'norms' horrified fascination with the 'odds'.
It would have been wonderful if the museum had had the courage to address this issue in some way, to put in context how the lives of those who made Barnum rich were affected for good or for ill. We learned really very little about any of these people, they were there in the museum because they were there in his life.
Neither of us knew how to think about the experience. What sayst you all? Were there up sides to the Freak Show? Or am I foolish for even asking?