Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Greatest Show On Earth

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?


miss kitten said...

yes, upsides. those people were proud of who they were, and not hidden away by their families. in some cases, they supported their families.

they became celebrities in their own rights, not despite their disabilities, but because they saw those oddities about themselves as a way to improve their lives. yes, some of them were exploited terribly. but many of them went on to live very fulfilled lives.

people are people are people. we're ugly on the outside, we're ugly on the inside, or we're beautiful but terrible to others, or we're just trying to do the best we can. that is *everyone* and no one group of people have a patent on the idea that they somehow escape the human condition.

have a wonderful day, dave. :)

Eileen said...

There has to be some consideration given to context, I think. The alternative for most of these folk would have been living in institutions or a segregated life at home. Now, such a show is unthinkable but then it did serve to challenge the status quo while providing a living for many. I think you put your finger on it when you describe the photos you saw - proud and defiant. Says it all.

Thanks for telling us about it!

Uniqueisfab said...

Like lots of people i was horrified at the mere thought of freak shows but having lived in disibility land for 20 years now i kind of get why people would be willing to show themselves off for money.
Like other comments suggest the historical context has a lot to do with it. The choice was be visible or invisible. It takes a lot of guts to be visibly very different from everyone else and human nature often moves us to connect to others we see as similar to us. Lots of people i know with down's syndrome like to get together and supoort groups are as popular as ever. You notice people in wheel chairs all the time Dave. We are all looking for some connection to others.
Barnums circus was a safe place to do just that, be with other people with unique differences.I'd like to think it was a way to celebrate difference even if those people who went to see the show didn't appreciate that.
I'm glad things have changed and like you dave would have thought a comment from the museum may help people see the good in what went on.

Thought provoking as ever. Thanks

Tamara said...

This is really one of your more thought-provoking posts, Dave. I've always been a little fascinated with the short life of a man named Robert Wadlow, who was the tallest man ever - and who grew up and lived in the same county as I do.

His family tried to protect him from "freak shows", but eventually he did participate in the circus - but not in the freak show - and also toured the country on his own.

If we could read the real stories of all those people who were involved in the "freak show", I would imagine we would find some instances where the people led very satisfying and enviable lives and others where they felt exploited.

It also brings to mind some of the reality shows that are about people leading different lives with different conditions. Is it exploitation or does it raise awareness?

CJ said...

I have always been horrified by even the concept of "freak shows."

However, we need to look closely at the framework of their lives.

What other choices did they have? I assume there were few and the circus may have offered the most independent and abuse free life possible during those times.

I abhor their lack of choices.

Anonymous said...

'there's a sucker born every minute.' Nah, Barnum probably didn't say that: http://www.historybuff.com/library/refbarnum.html

I gotta be quite honest: I'm kind of fascinated by sideshow stories. It has less to do with what "freaks" people were but just how damn interesting they were as people. http://thehumanmarvels.com/ is one of the more interesting sites about that sort of thing. It doesn't ignore the tragic elements in these people's lives, but it does also point out positives when there were some. Many of these people were actually talented performers and that attracted attention just as much as any "freakishness." That isn't to say it's a point in history that I'm all together proud of nor is it one that I think that needs to be glamorized, but it also shouldn't be ignored completely.

Myrrien said...

I went to have a look at that site history buff and while I don't disagree with what anyone has said about the freedom it gave some to be independent I felt disturbed that I was looking at such images. What does it say about me?

Very thought provoking post Dave, why shouldn't people with disabilities exploit the voyeuristic qualities of people. What difference is there between a skilled performer like this and the modern day actor in the disability arts or any other actor?

I just felt as if I had become one of the abusers. Maybe it is the whole thing of being told as a child "don't look" when you see someone with obvious physical disabilities.

You've left one reader uncomfortable about themself today Dave.

Unknown said...

I suppose it just depends on the person back then.

For a lot of those folks, that was probably the only choice for employment or a place to live or anything like that.

It wasn't like they were alone- though being gawked would have seriously blown.

Shan said...

Neither and both.

He wasn't some kind of crusader - making a buck just like everybody else. Likely a cynical fellow, with few illusions about humanity, but not a villain.

For their part, the 'oddities' weren't slaves, they were making their OWN buck, and obviously (in at least some cases) proud of it.

Not the most shining example of humanity in all its glory and scope, but not necessarily John Hurt sobbing "I am not an animal!" either.

It's the neck-craning spectators that are the real freak show.

Anonymous said...

I have researched the fat ladies of the circus and sideshows. And have put together a one-woman show that tells five of their stories. It's a hard topic to not get today's sensibilities confused with.