Redefining Normal: Ways Museums Discuss Eugenics and Disability

Eugenics, the idea that  “inferior” genetic traits can be eliminated by preventing certain people from having children, is a complicated topic to discuss.  One of the most recognizable and horrifying examples of eugenics is the “racial cleansing” performed by the Nazis before and during World War II.  All good WWII museums address the implications of Nazi eugenics, regardless of the focus of their exhibits.  Other museums have approached the topic in great detail—a particularly good example is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” exhibit. [1]  Although our K-12 institutions discuss the concept of eugenics in a small degree by teaching Nazi-era history, we often neglect our own country’s history of eugenics.  Eugenics practices in the U.S. may not be as well known, but they are still vital to a true understanding of our past.  Museums and other educational institutions are increasingly committed to racial equality and universal accessibility, but few provide information that focuses on inequalities through the lens of eugenics ideology.

The Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement provides a wealth of documentary information in an effort to spread information on the topic.  This exhibit divides images and documents into different topics related to eugenics in the United States, such as genetic research and marriage laws. [2] The Image Archive is a useful source for increasing awareness of our troubled past, but there are a variety of other online exhibits which also approach the topic.  Racial ideology is a significant focus of the eugenics movement, but I decided to look at educational programs that discussed the relation between eugenics and people with disabilities.

An explanatory example of a pedigree chart. Various traits (including blindness, deafness, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness) associated with each child on the chart are written next to the child to assess the likelihood of those traits in future generations

Two museums that have developed significant exhibits on disability are the Museum of disAbility History in Buffalo, NY and the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.  Both museums have developed both physical and online exhibits on the topic of disability.  The online exhibits primarily focus on the accomplishments of people with disabilities, frequently discussing people who overcame disabilities and organizations that support individuals with disabilities.  Both museums delve into the topic of eugenics, but the Musem of disAbility provides more content, including brief lesson plan activities.   The museum website has a wealth of resources on disability rights that can be used by K-12 educators.  The overview of each exhibit is also quite useful, but the information presented in the exhibit on eugenics is basic.  Overall, the Museum of disAbility History is a good place to start a discussion on the implications of eugenics. [3]

The National Museum of American History discusses the topic of disability through two online exhibits.  The online content from the museum’s exhibit in 2000 discusses the Disability Rights Movement, focusing primarily on forms of resistance and laws which provided greater rights for people with disabilities.  The exhibit includes images of artifacts and documents which are significant to the Disability Rights Movement and presents a basic understanding of eugenics practices in the United States.  However, unlike the Museum of disability History exhibit on eugenics, the Smithsonian exhibit provides no substantial resources to help educators discuss the topic. [4]  A more recent online exhibit (2013) focuses on people with disabilities by interpreting historic artifacts.  This exhibit also focuses on some of the challenges people with disabilities had to face throughout the 20thcentury and how determined people were able to advance disability rights by overcoming perceived limitations.  However, the online portion of the exhibit only provides a basic understanding of the unethical practices influenced by eugenics ideology.  It provides better educational resources than the exhibit on the Disability Rights Movement, but it includes only a few resources directed towards primary school educators. [5]  Nonetheless, both museums should be recognized for their efforts to approach such a difficult and overlooked topic.

All three of these exhibits succeed in challenging the ideology of eugenics, even if they do not discuss all of the historical problems caused by this ideology in detail.  A lack of specific content on eugenics practices is an indication that the topic is not yet entirely understood or directed towards the general public.  We tend to overlook the popularity that the Eugenics Movement had in the early 20th century, but a close look at laws, practices, and media at that time readily demonstrates the troubling influence this ideology had.  Museums must continue to find ways to discuss this important topic.

Poster for the 1917 film The Black Stork, a story involving parents who choose to let a child born with multiple disabilities die instead of attempting surgery that could save him. This was one of many films that discussed the topic of eugenics.


[1] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race”

[2] Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement

[3] Museum of disAbility

[4] National Museum of American History, “The Disability Rights Movement”

[5] National Museum of American History “Everybody: An Artifact History of Disability in America”

The featured image and first image come from the American Philosophical Society archives.  The second image was taken from the National Public Radio “Beyond Affliction” site:

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