ICHORA 2020, DAY 5: Gracen Brilmyer, “Refiguring Provenance and the Desire for the Whole”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “What the Archives Can(t) Give Us: Thinking Through Archival Disturbances.”

In “Archival Cures: Refiguring Provenance and the Desire for the Whole,” Gracen Brilmyer (McGill University) examines how to tell the history of disability with little or none archival evidence, specifically looking at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. By looking at disabled people in the historical record, Brilmyer explains that they are generally presented through their criminalization and institutionalization, as expounded upon by Susan Schwiek in The Ugly Laws (2009). [1] The goal of this research is to explore disabled people in the archival record that exists outside of the typical snapshot seen through the records of those in power. Brilmyer chose the Field Museum because of a curiosity to discover if there were disabled people involved in the history of the museum. 

Gracen 1 (1)

Brilmyer gives a brief history of the museum, which originated from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In exploring the records collection of the World’s Fair at the museum, Brilmyer was met with an absence of disabled people. This artificial collection of records does not have a single provenance. The materials in the collection were created by multiple people, have been duplicated, disseminated to different archives, and have no consistent arrangement and description. Brilmyer explains the process of thinking about this collection and the previous decisions made in creating and gathering the records together and the possible exclusion of disabled people along the way. 

Looking at the theory of provenance and the ways in which it has been expanded upon, Brilmyer explores the desire for a “whole” or rehabilitative practices drawing comparisons between archival provenance and disabilities studies. This factors into the disabilities studies “critique of the impossibility of restoring provenance because records are lost or moved or never created.” Brilmyer explains that just as restoration is not possible for a disabled body-mind that was never not disabled, so are archival materials invariably incomplete.

Gracen 2 (1)

Brilmyer aims to examine records through a different theoretical foundation that restructures provenance and embraces records in their current realities, which are sometimes incomplete. Describing a concept called “crip provenance,” Brilmyer explains it as a disability-centered framework focusing on the new connections that are created because records are incomplete. Through this lens, Brilmyer can examine disability in the history of the museum, which presents elimination both in the absence of evidence but also in partial evidence of a disabled person that undermines personhood and agency. 

Using crip provenance, Brilmyer expounds upon four categories of relationships to think about the Field Museum from both an archival and disabilities studies lens—people, systems, materials, and spaces. People can include subjects, donors, and archivists, but also living disabled people affected by records and those included in the records. Systems encompass the evolution of the systems of medicine, biology, and anthropology, which created hierarchical spheres of humanity and archival records systems. Materials include not only the physical artifacts, but also how disabled people use technologies. And finally, Brilmyer sees spaces as multiple–including the physical displays, accessibility, and the land the museum was built on. 


[1] Susan Schwiek, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York: NYU Press, 2009).



Natalie Worsham, MLIS, MA

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