Black and white image of institutionalized women in the company of a nurse on a porch at Polk State Center, c. 1900s-1920s. This image depicts five younger women and three older women dressed in winter attire, all seated, before a nurse standing in the background. One young woman is in a bed with a doll in hand and another young woman is in a wheelchair. From the Polk Center (PA) Glass Plate Negatives, Record Group 23, Series 989, Pennsylvania State Archives.

Researching the History of Institutionalized People

Thursday, April 15, 2021 • 6:30 pm - 8:00 pm
Online via Zoom
Free | Please register online
Virtual Program

Add to Calendar04/15/2021 06:30 PM04/15/2021 08:00 PMAmerica/New_YorkResearching the History of Institutionalized PeopleJoin scholars and archivists as they discuss the strengths and limitations of these historical records to as a tool for discovering the personal stories of institutionalized people with disabilities.Online via ZoomHeinz History CenterfalseMM/DD/YYYY

Join scholars and archivists as they discuss the strengths and limitations of historical records from state-run institutions to reflect the personal stories of institutionalized people with disabilities in Pennsylvania.

For generations, researchers have faced barriers to accessing the historical files of institutionalized people. Learn about the multiyear effort to preserve historical records from state-run institutions and the new policies that have opened them for research. These materials offer a rare, individual-focused approach to exploring the early history of institutionalization in Pennsylvania.

Though fragmentary, these historical records provide glimpses into individual people whose lives were profoundly shaped by the system of institutionalization in Pennsylvania. While the primary focus will be on records from institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, this program will also address access to early records from state hospitals for people with mental illness.

Attendees will learn about the information contained in these files and how to gain access to their contents. Speakers will highlight records available online and in-person at the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Heinz History Center.

For genealogists, these records offer the potential for poignant insights into the lives and personal experiences of institutionalized ancestors and their families.


Registration for this event is free. Please register in advance.

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For more information, please contact Sierra Green at

Accessibility: Open Captioning Live captioning will be provided at this virtual program.

Accessibility: Sign Language ASL interpretation will be provided at this virtual program.


Dennis B. Downey, PhD is Professor Emeritus of History at Millersville University and co-author of Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights (Penn State Press, 2020).   The author or editor of ten books and scores of scholarly articles and essays, Downey chairs the Disability Policy Circle for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

Nathan R. Stenberg is a first-generation disabled artist, personal trainer, and scholar from a low-income, single-parent family in rural Minnesota. He is interested in how the stories we tell about disabled people influence everything from depictions of disability in popular entertainment to policy decisions for the disability community in the United States. Nathan received his BA in music from Roberts Wesleyan College in 2014, and his MDiv from Princeton Seminary in 2017. He is currently a PhD Candidate in Theatre & Performance Historiography at the University of Minnesota.

Tyler Stump is an acquisitions archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives. He primarily works with records that document the history of mental health, institutionalization, prisons, and public health in Pennsylvania. Since he joined the archives in 2016, he has helped collect archival records from more than a dozen state hospitals and centers in Pennsylvania, and has written several articles on Pennsylvania’s state mental institutions.