Art, Oral History, and New Approaches to Telling the “Story” of Institutionalization in Pennsylvania

February 6, 2020

In this workshop, we will explore how putting oral history in dialogue with other artistic practices can expand what we think of as “story,” and move us toward a more radically inclusive practice, one that questions the privileging of the oral over other ways of showing lived experience.

This expansion is critical in order to inclusively document and activate the history of intellectual disability (ID), including accounts of institutionalization, the practice over the past century and into today of placing people with ID into segregated residential facilities. Much of what we know about institutional life is framed by case files and diagnoses, and not the memories, perspectives and experiences of people who lived, and still live, in institutions.

Centering the lived experiences of institutionalization is key but when narrators are nonverbal, or use nontraditional communication, documenting and interpreting these experiences challenge the tools of oral history and other traditional documentary tools. In 2017-2018, the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University led a Discovery project at the Selinsgrove Center, a residential institution for people with intellectual disabilities, where a group of artists — oral historian, dancer, photographer, documentary filmmaker, and public historian — worked with residents and staff to explore how different approaches to eliciting, documenting and sharing first-person experiences might bring more “voices” into our understanding of the history and present of institutionalization, and yield a different, more complex “story.”

In addition to the work done in Discovery, the Institute’s recent acquisition of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital archives (1928 -1987) provides a rare opportunity to consider how our collective memory of institutionalization is shaped and shared. We want to use the archives to broaden society’s understanding of institutional history and allow audiences to find points of personal connection with individuals still experiencing institutionalization.

Pennsylvania’s institutions have a nuanced history, holding stories of abuse and neglect alongside stories of connection, friendship and love. Though fewer than 800 people currently reside in Pennsylvania’s four remaining institutions, over 100,000 people with intellectual disabilities have passed through the Commonwealth’s fourteen institutions since 1893, creating social and economic marginalization that continues to this day. Advocates predict that Pennsylvania’s four remaining institutions will close within the next five years. Our work is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of how institutions – and the people who have lived there – are remembered, while contributing to a shared vision for the future.

Nicki Pombier Berger is an oral historian, teaching artist, and writer working at the intersection of oral history, disability, arts and social change. She has co-created and co-curated multimedia exhibits online and in public spaces, and designed and produced educational and experimental multimedia works, independently and in partnership with institutions like Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities, and Oral History Summer School. Her work with Toward Independent Living and Learning (TILL) to use oral history practices to engage human services staff in rethinking the complexity and humanity of people with intellectual disabilities won the 2015 Innovation Award from the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers. She previously led community engagement programming at the nonprofit organization StoryCorps. She is the Founding Editor of Underwater New York and an organizing member of the artists’ collective Works on Water. Nicki has a Master of Arts in Oral History from Columbia University, a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and a Bachelor of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University. She is on faculty in the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University and at The New School University, where she teaches in the College of Performing Arts Drama BFA program. More about Nicki’s work can be found here:

Lisa Sonneborn is a documentary filmmaker and Director of Media Arts & Culture for the Institute on Disabilities, Temple University. Her first documentary, Unequal Justice: The Case for Johnny Lee Wilson, told the story of a young man with an intellectual disability who was wrongfully imprisoned for murder. Produced in partnership with the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, Unequal Justice earned Lisa a Film Honoraria from the Princess Grace Foundation; started a national conversation about people with disabilities as alleged offenders and as victims of crime; and earned support for the Institute’s ongoing disability/criminal justice programming from the Joseph P Kennedy, Jr. Foundation. In 2011, Lisa again partnered with the Institute to produce the Visionary Voices project. Visionary Voices has preserved the history of Pennsylvania’s Intellectual Disability Rights Movement through oral history interviews with the Movement’s leaders; the preservation of archival documents significant to the Movement; and public performance. In 2016, Lisa produced A Fierce Kind of Love, a new play by Suli Holum. Performed by artists with and without disabilities, Fierce tells the story of the Intellectual Disabilities Rights Movement in word, movement and song. The Philadelphia Daily News called Fierce “a transcendent, modern, and startling performance… it leaves you with a more expansive, beautiful understanding of what it means to be human.” Lisa’s current projects include Discovering the Selinsgrove Center, which seeks to expand our understanding of the experience of institutionalization in partnership with those who are currently living it; and a collaborative  arts access project which uses Smart Glasses technology to caption live performance in real time (partners include The National Theatre, London and People’s Light.). Lisa holds a BA in Art History from Arcadia University, and an MFA in Film and Media Arts from Temple University.

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