Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t: Community Involvement in Exhibition Development

Reflecting on Gaelic Gotham: A History of the Irish in New York City, an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 1996, curator Jack Salzman stated, “I know there are people who believe that these shows are to be done with the community.  I just don’t agree with that.  It seems to me that you wind up just trying to cater to community, and that the responsibility is to come up with the best and smartest show you can… If communities were always involved, then how do you ever get anything done?”[i] This argument is not surprising for a man who saw contentious controversy erupt over an exhibit that he helped develop.  The Irish community of New York was outraged when another museum curator asserted that the exhibit was not for the Irish community, but about them.  This occurred in 1996, three years before Stephen Weil’s manifesto “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum.”  Since then, the museum field has realized that community outreach is essential.  But how do we make this a reality?  Is it possible to have community involvement and have a successful, well-received exhibit?  The Museum of the City of New York was “damned because they didn’t,” and audiences and Irish community members attacked Gaelic Gotham because of it’s lack of community involvement.

On the other hand is Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).  I do not personally believe that the NMAI was “damned because they did,” however the exhibition curators may disagree. I believe that the result of the museum reaching out to community representatives from Native tribes was successful.  However, in her article, “Collaborative Exhibit Development at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian,” Cynthia Chavez Lamar discusses the issues that arose from the museum’s attempt at shared authority.  Community members are not museum curators, no matter how passionate they are about a topic. Is it possible to retain curatorial power and have a successful, well-received exhibit?

If the museum field is shifting focus toward the communities that they serve, what does that mean for the exhibition curator?  It is inevitable that museums can’t please everyone all the time, therefore, controversial museum exhibits will not soon be things of the past.

[i] Steven C. Dubin, Displays of power (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 238-239.


About Mandy Kritzeck

Content and Media Specialist at The Corning Museum of Glass.
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