- An “effort to bring this little handicapped army in personal touch with beauty”: Democratizing Art for Crippled Children at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1919–1934
- New York History
- Cornell University Press
- Volume 96, Number 1, Winter 2015
- pp. 38-66
- View Citation
- Additional Information
New York History Winter 2015© 2015 by The New York State Historical Association 38 An “effort to bring this little handicapped army in personal touch with beauty”: Democratizing Art for Crippled Children at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1919–1934 Nicole Belolan, University of Delaware On the morning of May 24, 1922, a selected group of homebound New York City children woke up and prepared for a field trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.1 At the appointed time, the Fifth Avenue Coach Company picked them up at their homes and ferried them to their destination. In this period, people would have referred to these children as “crippled,” “helpless crippled,” or “physically handicapped,” but today they would be identified as having physical mobility impairments.2 Upon the children’s arrival, staff greeted them with wheelchairs, and they entered the museum with the assistance of museum and school staff as well as neighborhood volunteers (see Figure 1). During the visit, lecturer Anna Curtis Chandler transported her listeners “to a colonial home” via a storyhour illustrated with magic lantern slides—or transparent images on glass viewed as projections—and museum collections. Following the story, staff 1. The author is grateful to the librarians and archivists who facilitated her research at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York City Municipal Archives. The author also thanks the many individuals and groups who helped make this essay better. They include the students and faculty who first laid eyes on it in Arwen Mohun’s 2011 graduate research and writing seminar; audience members at the 2013 American Studies Association Conference in Washington, D.C.; a writing group; New York History reviewers and editors; and Tyler Putman. The article title was taken from a quotation in a newspaper clipping, Linda Hose McCabe, “Crippled School Children Ready for Museum Visit; Victims of Infantile Paralysis Look to the Day of ‘Painted Skies,’” The World, Sunday, April 15, 1923, Folder: Lectures (1919–) Crippled Children, 1919–25, 1930, Office of the Secretary Records, Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives (hereafter referred to as MMA Archives). 2. In the early twentieth century, crippled individuals had what we could call mobility impairments today. Helpless crippled individuals could not walk far independently and were generally considered homebound. In this essay, I have used the period terminology for children with disabilities (such as “crippled”) when quoting from period sources. When I am not quoting period sources, I use words generally considered acceptable today for referring to people with disabilities. Terminology used in the field of disability studies is variable and is constantly changing. For more on language and terminology as it relates to disability history, see Corinne Kirchner and Liat Ben-Moshe, s.v. Language and terminology , Encyclopedia of American Disability History, Susan Burch, ed., Vol. 2, (New York: Facts on File, 2009), 546–550. Thanks to Katherine Ott for suggesting this source. Belolan Democratizing Art for Crippled Children at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1919–1934 39 and volunteers wheeled the children through the galleries. There, children saw paintings, sculpture, and suits of armor. Adela J. Smith, the Director of Physical Training for New York City’s public schools, wrote of these visits that the museum “must have seemed to [the children] like fairyland.”3 As cultural gatekeepers in a society largely unresponsive to the needs of children with mobility impairments, Metropolitan Museum of Art staff believed that access to art gave “crippled” children and their more typically abled counterparts a chance to become active citizens in their community.4 3. Adela J. Smith, “Helpless Crippled Children at the Museum,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 17, 7 (Jul., 1922), 152. 4. James Turner argued that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, “agnostics discovered a variety of springs of reassurance and objects to revere. Science, art, and nature each provided consolation , comfort, and a kind of holiness.” James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 249. Using the material culture and experience of being a “crippled” child in New York City during the early twentieth century as a jumping-off point, this essay tells a progressive-era story about what...