|Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies
In The Shadow of the Freakshow: The Impact of Freakshow Tradition on the Display and Understanding of Disability History in Museums
In 2003 a research project was undertaken by The Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. Buried in the Footnotes set out to address a deficit in knowledge and understanding around the hidden history of disability by investigating museum collections and displays in the UK to identify evidence attesting to the lives of disabled people. The project further aimed to identify and examine curatorial practices and other factors, which may have contributed to historical and contemporary under- or mis-representation of disabled people, including through the examination of how information associated with disabled people comes to be changed, distorted or lost. In this essay, the research team presents elements of the research findings relating to freak material, artifacts and records. We report on the material identified, examine the responses and attitudes of museum curators to holding and showing such material, and consider the impact of curatorial perspectives on the record and display of disability history.
Keywords: freaks, museums, curatorial practice, disability history, anthropology, Charles Stratton (Tom Thumb), Arthur Caley (The Manx Giant), Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man), Sarah Biffin, John Vine.
Museum collections play a considerable part in the record and documentation of freakery — whether allied to the fairground show tradition or in terms of artifacts collected as part of a tradition of curiosity and anthropological study. The mid-18th to late 19th century period, during which the modern public museum was invented, witnessed the burgeoning of numerous forms of public display, including fairgrounds, exhibitions and freak shows, which informed and fed the development of museums (Altick, 1978). Even as museums moved towards a rational, taxonomic system of classification, the link remained:
In collection terms, museums also benefited from the enthusiasm of collectors with direct links to the lives of disabled people — as their surgeons, showground employers or relatives. As example of how this came to happen, Owen Farrel, a strongman-dwarf, "sold his body to a Mr. Omrod, a surgeon, for a weekly allowance who, after his death, made a skeleton of his bones which ... at present is preserved (in the museum) of the late Dr William Hunter at the University of Glasgow" (Cauldfield, 1797).
The evidence of physically anomalous bodies through pathological samples, costume items, fairground ephemera, medical treatises, and photographic archives added to the store of materials, which would come to form a record of a period in history when physically different was exotic, collectable, and displayed.
In 2003 a research project was undertaken by The Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, which was established in 1999 in response to the growing need for research and evaluation within the sector, in particular around the relationship between museums, galleries, and their audiences. Buried in the Footnotes set out to address a deficit in knowledge and understanding around the hidden history of disability by investigating museum collections and displays in the UK to identify evidence attesting to the lives of disabled people. The project further aimed to identify and examine curatorial practices and other factors , which may have contributed to historical and contemporary under- or mis-representation of disabled people, including through the examination of how information associated with disabled people comes to be changed, distorted, or lost. The summary report is at www.le.ac.uk/museumstudies/rcmg/BITF2.pdf .
In this essay, the research team presents elements of the research findings relating to freak material, artifacts, and records. We report on the material identified, examine the responses and attitudes of museum curators to holding and showing such material, and consider the impact of curatorial perspectives on the record and display of disability history.
Methodology and definitions
Empirical research was carried out in two stages between August 2003 and April 2004. First, a self-completion questionnaire was sent to 224 curators of different collections including fine and decorative art, social history, archaeology, local, industrial, maritime, medical, and military history. The objectives of the questionnaire were, firstly, to identify levels of awareness of the existence of relevant material within collections and to gauge attitudes towards its collection, documentation and interpretation, and, secondly, to identify a shortlist of appropriate case studies for the next phase of the research.
Respondents returned 73 questionnaires, and of those who responded, 29 museums self-identified as willing to be involved in further research as a case study museum. Ten case studies were selected from these to include a variety of organization types. In addition to the selection criteria of size, geographical location, mode of governance, and variety of collection types we wanted to include known examples of good practice and museums with a potentially significant connection to disability, as well as those which, through their questionnaire responses, stated that they believed they had "nothing to declare" related to disability.
At each case study museum, databases were searched for relevant objects using a range of search terms including those related to categories of fairground freak such as dwarf and giant. Curators were interviewed using a semi-structured interview, which included questions on issues around display and recorded or observed public response to displayed material. Additionally, researchers interviewed the director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield and visited current exhibitions where freak-related material was on display.
In reporting the findings of the research, terminology was carefully considered and conscious decisions taken about presentation of information. These included adopting the convention of referring to freaks by their real name (where known) first and including their show name as a descriptor (i.e., "Charles Stratton, Tom Thumb"). The definition of freaks was also discussed in the context of current knowledge and frames of reference.
When Fiedler wrote his seminal work on freakshows and their meanings in 1978, the accepted definition of a freak (Oxford English Dictionary 1976 edition) was as a: "Monstrosity" or "Abnormally developed individual." It was thus appropriate for Fiedler to identify freaks as "physiologically deviant humans" (Fiedler, 1978). However, as debate advanced, Robert Bogdan would propose the idea that the identity of freak was a social construct:
Working from a base of this understanding, and in accordance with the research project ethos of framing the work within the social model of disability, Buried in the Footnotes adopted the definition of "freak" as a term to denote people who, at any stage in their lives, were exhibited or exhibited themselves to be viewed for money. This was as distinct from "characters"; the term we used to denote local people celebrated for behavioral or physical oddity, of whom images, depictions, and accounts occur with frequency in local museum collections. Thus, an exceptionally tall man who did not perform but of whom a painting is held would be considered a "character" rather than a "freak."
The 10 case studies included five museums that reported artifacts associated with a known freak or performer — Arthur Caley, the Manx Giant; Charles Stratton, General Tom Thumb; Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and the artists Sarah Biffin and John Vine. Of museums holding related material, two had items of clothing associated with freaks, two works of art painted by artists who had performed at fairgrounds and later developed their artistic reputation by promoting their method of production (for example, as "the armless artist") and one collection included personal artifacts belonging to a freak, and his preserved skeleton.
Other questionnaire respondents had identified material connected with freaks, or images and decorative objects depicting freaks, named or un-named.
Material evidence of freaks
The material evidence linked to each of the five individuals who featured in case study museums is shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Individual, Freak Identity: Material evidence findings
Arthur Caley, The Manx Giant: A pair of boots said to belong to Arthur Caley. A cast iron replica said to be of the giant's hand. Photographs of Caley as Colonel Ruth Goshen, the Palestinian Giant, during his career with Barnum in the USA. Biographical research and printed accounts.
Charles Stratton, Tom Thumb: A suit of clothes said to belong to Tom Thumb, displayed on a purpose-made mannequin. A shoe, stockings, and spoon. Cartes de visite of Tom Thumb, Commodore Nutt, Lavinia Warren ("Mrs. Thumb").
Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man: Merrick's preserved skeleton. A replica of his hat and veil made for the David Lynch/EMI film The Elephant Man. Personal and domestic items including china, birth certificate, and hospital admission record. A carte de visite photograph.
Sarah Biffin, The Armless Artist: Three artworks (an oil painting and two watercolors). Biographical information including auction catalog and exhibition catalog entries. Correspondence and labels relating to a major exhibition in 1924-5. A "large amount of documentation" (curator's description) about the artist was deposited by researcher Gwen Hardy, but is not catalogued and is now believed lost. A portrait of the artist dated 1845 appears in the catalog and is attributed to the museum in newspaper articles, but its location in store is unknown.
John Vine, The Armless Artist: Several works in oil. Reproductions of a self-portrait and portrait in infancy (whereabouts of originals not known). Biographical booklet (Benham, 1931).
Display of freak-related material
In two cases, full displays were dedicated to the person, including portrait images that showed the nature of their physical disability. These displays used text to outline the person's story, together with illustrative artifacts. In one case, the freak shared "double-billing" with the surgeon who befriended him — the freak being identified by his show-name in large text, and his proper name in secondary text.
In a third case, artifacts were displayed in "cabinet of curiosity" style, adjacent to unrelated curiosity objects and with a short label. The curator commented:
In the remaining cases the items were not on display, the date last displayed was unknown and there were no plans for future display. Practical concerns were also described by curators, including the appropriateness of using a child-sized mannequin to display a costume belonging to a show dwarf, and the need for conservation of the item before display.
Loss or change of information
In two cases, items associated with freak show performers were not supported by confirmed information concerning its origin or veracity as an object with proven links to the individual. Donors were unknown, or had no direct link with the individual, and dates of donation were either unknown or a century after the individual had last been in England. It was also noted that, where there were biographical details, dates and information regarding marriages and children were based on publicity information linked with shows (See below for discussion).
In two cases, contemporary portraits of the individuals and other documentary evidence of their lives had been lost, sometimes while in the care of the museum. (The loss of one portrait was revealed only by this research). Individual items , which did not carry visually identifiable links with a freak, were susceptible to loss by migration to another collection area (This was seen in two museums: where Stratton's (Tom Thumb's) spoon was re-located to storage as silverware, and a cast iron hand catalogued as "dwarf's hand" had been visually identified as a child's hand and moved to a different storage area).
These observations were made in the context that physical evidence of the past presence of freaks, in the form of artifacts, contemporary accounts, portraits and photographs was shown to be widely present in museum collections. As a repository of information on freak history, museums and their associated archives clearly have a prime position in British culture.
The issues drawn from these findings were thus:
How do curators feel about freak material?
Interviews with curators were carried out against the broader context of information and artifacts related to all disabled people. In museums where freak-related material was present, the material was often used to illustrate points, both by the researchers and the curators. The research team feels that general attitudes to material related to disabled people can be taken as relevant to the particular case of freaks.
The choice of words used when discussing concerns over display was revealing. Curators wanted to avoid "shock," "distress," "offence," "upset," and "difficulty." One curator summarized their feelings about how to display related artifacts as "fear and confusion." This sensitivity appeared to be due to the fear of getting it wrong. Yet some curators were already developing strategies to develop confidence, for example through discussion with colleagues or by trying approaches and gauging visitor response. In these cases curators reported increased confidence in the use of freak-related material.
Another strategy was to involve consultative groups of disabled people in decision-making around terminology and display. In one exhibition, curators advertised the involvement of a consultative group including personal assistants and parents on a text panel describing freak show culture. While this validated the approach through consultation, the statement could also be viewed as self-protective because it tends to deflect criticism. In another case, an interviewed curator admitted that the museum had continued to show caution even after consulting:
The terms "freak" and "freakshow" carry such negative connotations, particularly in the museum sector where the close relationship between display cultures makes curators more conscious of such issues, that the terminology itself is hard to use objectively. Those who use the terms in a museum context feel the need to justify their choice of words. For example, in the publication accompanying one exhibition the co-curator states:
In displaying any object or artifact related to disability, curators are anxious not to be seen as promoting freakshow approaches. In explaining why they choose not to show items, they may invoke the avoidance of a freakshow as the reason. The shadow of the freakshow has to be recognized as part of the reason why a climate of fear and nervousness pervades the discussion of display of disability. Acknowledging the historical importance and place of freakshows, and using this knowledge to inform displays related to disability, is part of the future challenge for museums.
Like other sectors who trade in imagery and representation, fear can contribute to inertia — parallels can be seen in print and live media, and in theatre. In museums this inertia has been partly obscured by the considerable progress that the sector has made in relation to the area of access for disabled visitors. Equality of access to services and facilities for all visitors remain important areas, but this effort has, perhaps, enabled the sector to postpone the need to grapple with more challenging issues around representation.
The museum's responsibility in representation
If museums have been shown to hold material that forms a substantial primary resource for the study of disability history in general, and the history of freakshow in particular, the question must then be what responsibility they have to interpret and display it in any particular way. To consider this, we have to examine the role that the museum might play in shaping audience values, attitudes and perceptions and in contributing to a positive sense of identity for its audiences, including the community of disabled people.
Museums can be shown to be influential on the individual's understanding of cultural norms and acceptability in three ways — as repositories of material evidence, as agents of social inclusion, and as sites for developing new interpretations.
First, they are keepers of the objects through which people can learn to understand their cultural past and its implications for the present and future. As "the bank vaults securing national identity" (Merriman, 2003), museums present displays that create for us an image of the past, a form of collective memory, which helps us know how to think about our history (Zolberg, 1996).
According to Ivan Karp, the individual's struggle to define personhood can be influenced by what is seen in a museum:
Of the modes of being on display, one is "freakishness" — based on physical, usually visible, difference. It has been suggested that the identity of the dominant or mainstream community is strengthened by rejecting anomaly (Shakespeare, 1994. Douglas, 1966). Showing difference, and encouraging recognition of variation and extremes, has been part of museum grammar. But museums of today have to be cautious (as curators in our research showed they were) if their mode of display is not to reinforce a disabled person's sense of difference, rather than of belonging, as a casualty of their drive to explain the past.
The second role that a museum can play is in creating the sense of social inclusion, which would allow disabled people to perceive their own history as part both of a distinct culture and of a wider regional, national, international or other identity. Richard Sandell demonstrates that the exclusion of minority groups in society is "reflected in the museum that fails to tell the stories of those groups," and hence:
Sandell's proposed solution links the achievement of better access and audience development standards with representation, by representing the histories and culture of minority groups in such a way that the museum becomes more relevant to that community, encouraging them to access its services. He proposes "possible impacts" that feed the development of personhood:
The third potential role for the postmodern museum is as the natural location for new interpretations of disability identity as informed by the material evidence of the past. Having moved away from a taxonomic, ordered view of the world to one governed more by narratives, interpretation, and multiple meanings, the museum is proposed as having the potential to become a "contact zone" between ethnic, economic, or other cultural groups; a place for minority articulations of history, responding to former exclusion (Clifford, 1997).
The collection, and what it evokes and tells, can be viewed as a starting point and a resource, even if (or especially when) it is little understood by the curators:
What holds museums back?
Many museums are acutely aware of their responsibilities outlined above, and some have radically changed the ways in which they approach representation of women, people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds and from different socio-economic groups and, in rather fewer examples, lesbians and gay men. Yet where disability is concerned museums appear to remain focused, for the most part, on issues of visitor access and tend to associate representation either with contemporary outreach (perhaps a small exhibition arising out of work with a local group of disabled people) or with the potential for mistakes, embarrassment and criticism. Why are they so uniquely inhibited in this area?
Buried in the Footnotes identified the "shadow" of the freakshow as a barrier to representation — the theoretical possibility of the accusation "freakshow" was enough to inhibit experimentation and risk-taking. Display of freak-related material can therefore become an object lesson in attacking this inhibition head-on, defusing the perception of danger by a methodical, informed and adventurous approach to material perceived as "sensitive." Those who had tackled this reported increased curator confidence, visitor interest, and professional profile as a result of presenting freak stories in a nuanced way.
Three key issues presented themselves as needing to be seriously considered in the presentation of freakshow history and the individual stories of freaks. In addition to the generalized issue of how to tell difficult stories, there were the more freak-specific issues of staring, and of getting to "truth" through the showground tradition of exaggeration and fantasy.
Telling difficult stories
The history of disability is full of stories that are uncomfortable to deal with. The realities of life for disabled people in the past, the way in which society has dealt with their presence, and current prejudices towards disability are challenging themes for presentation. We found a range of difficult stories associated with objects, freakshows being just one of a list, which also included histories of asylums, war injury and mutilation, holocaust experimentation, and brutal or unsuccessful medical treatment.
In interpreting freakshow history, a few museums have the additional burden of holding items, which pose legal, ethical, and display problems. These are the museums that hold human remains (predominantly skeletons) associated with named freaks. The responsibility of protecting and respecting these remains is set against the knowledge that, in some cases, they were acquired without the consent, which, in modern terms, legitimizes 'ownership' of the remains as artifacts. Professor Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive stated in interview:
Even when collected with consent, the remains have become virtually undisplayable due to legal and ethical concerns and in some cases have been lost during the long period in store. The Disability Arts community in the UK, while showing renewed interest in freak histories as material for reconstructing cultural identity, have not yet expressed opinion on the "ownership" or treatment of these remains. It has yet to be claimed that the disability community may have a cultural right to reclaim bodies for respectful interment.
Yet in the wider context, there are plenty of examples of exhibitions tackling issues as contentious as those connected with disability. Comparable issues given as examples during the research included slavery, female circumcision, and wartime internment of aliens including Jews.
The Pleasurelands exhibition at Sheffield Millennium Gallery directly tackled the presentation of freak history with a section on freak performers and show promoters. The display text referred to the lack of alternatives for making a living available to people with impairments. It also carried this paragraph:
Curators, researchers, and academics discussed this area at a colloquium and identified some of the barriers to presentation. One curator noted a pressure to censor "unpleasantness," the censorship arising, in part, from local authority governance:
While there were also explicit references to concern about exploitation through staring if an object is not properly contextualized:
Museums are places where people come to look at things. The museum effect - the act of "attentive looking" (Alpers, 1991), which transforms every object into something to be gazed at - legitimizes and even sanctifies the act of staring. But staring is also part of the currency of disability experience, proposed by Tom Shakespeare as demonstrating a power relationship, a form of "sadistic mastery" of disabled people (Shakespeare, 1994).
Freaks inverted the power relationship by displaying themselves in a commercial transaction that assured their income. That they did so knowingly is evidenced through their own words, quoted in textual notes supporting the display of images in two exhibitions during 2003. Johnnie Osbourne (Wee McGregor) explained in a newspaper interview in 1979:
While these words are attributed to Daisy Hilton in the exhibition catalogue for the British Museum's Medicine Man exhibition (2003):
But in the public space of a museum, disabled visitors today will still experience the everyday invasion of staring:
Hence, whatever a freak may have decided about the commercial possibilities of staring in their own lifetime, this will not mitigate the sense of exposure that could be felt by a disabled visitor in proximity to a freak exhibit. Because staring is authorized within museums, disabled people may even feel vulnerable to being perceived as part of the display.
Our research indicated that curators were aware of the risk of reinforcing negative forms of staring. Some felt that the material, once out there, was vulnerable to ridicule or inappropriate responses from museum visitors:
Modes of display of material connected with freaks have the potential to authorize staring as a negative response to oddity, or to allow it to develop into thoughtful reflection. At Pleasurelands (Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, 2003), curators encouraged visitors to reflect on their own feelings about being stared at. A visitor comment book had been provided, which asked the question "How do you feel when people stare at you?" Words used by visitors included weird, paranoid, annoyed, self-conscious.
"What differentiates staring from gazing or looking?"
"I feel embarrassed, upset and I feel that something's wrong."
Getting to truth
The showground world, which many freaks inhabited, was woven of hyperbole, fantasy, and manipulation (Thomson, 1996). Characters changed their names and adopted invented nationalities, titles, ages, measurements and personal relations in keeping with the requirements of showmanship. (In interview Professor Toulmin explained that it was useful, for example, for a dwarf to be both shorter and older than they really were, and for a giant to be taller and younger).
Research of the support materials held by some museums who had freak-related artifacts showed that these fictions become perpetuated, and are presented in some cases as historical truth, without reference to sources that may enable a museum to present areas of doubt to the visitor for debate. For example, a displayed picture of Daisy and Violet Hilton in a 2003 exhibition described them as "Being wooed by two young men" (Arnold and Olsen, 2003). The Hiltons' show story is characterized by sexual titillation (Thomson, 1996), and there is reason to doubt that what took place in a New York photographic studio was, in fact, "wooing."
In a few cases, an amateur enthusiast has helped to solve some of the dilemmas. Predominantly, however, curators treat information sources with delicacy, in some cases leading to less stringent interrogation than they might apply elsewhere.
Where this is principally of concern is where artifacts are said to have been associated with freaks without a clear information trail back to the freak themselves. At least four suits of Tom Thumb clothes are in British collections, but preliminary enquiries lead to doubt as to whether all have proven association to Charles Stratton. Similarly, the parish of Sulby on the Isle of Man produced several exceptionally large islanders including a well-known gardener — to which of these men do the Manx Giant's boots really belong?
Buried in the Footnotes was able to demonstrate by research that museums are uniquely valuable repositories of material evidence of freakshow history.
The material is, however, poorly understood and interpreted and is acutely vulnerable to loss, or to change of meaning.
The research identified a complex series of competing concerns that inhibit the ability for freakshow evidence to be exposed in such a way as to invite interrogation and response. Curators are not culpable in this aspect of hidden history — the research found no conspiracy to suppress or distort. What it found, rather, was an atmosphere of anxiety and fear, which led to lack of confidence, reluctance to take risks, inertia or perpetuation of inappropriate practice.
New approaches to the display and representation of the material could enable museums to play an important role in addressing contemporary issues around disability and disability discrimination. By contesting reductive stereotypes, addressing the "difficult stories" surrounding disability history and demonstrating the diversity of disability experience, museums have the capacity to challenge understanding of what disability has meant to society in the past, and could mean in the future.
The potential for exploration by disabled people, and for new constructions and narratives about disability history based on freak material, is great. Yet through lack of information, disabled people are not able to demonstrate that what is held may be meaningful to them as a community with a developing identity. The future presents opportunities for curators to work with disabled people in developing approaches to display, which help visitors to place the freakshow in history. By doing so, museums will discharge their responsibility to support social inclusion and to create a space for a new articulation of identity by disabled people.
Speaking of people who are ethnically "different," Stuart Hall has seen a future where complex and shifting identities are central:
In such a way, with the museum as the repository of evidence and the place of discovery, disabled people might produce an identity free of the negativity and shame associated with freakshow, but enlightened by it as a resonant, formative experience of our own community in the past.
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Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)