Through successful exhibitions, museums connect objects and ideas to individuals. It is impossible to fully anticipate audience response. Yet the importance of positive public reaction is undeniable. People initially vote with their feet and subsequently vote with funding. Federally funded museums, such as the Smithsonian, are particularly vulnerable to public opinion. While a portion of the Smithsonian’s operating budget is federally appropriated, the exhibits themselves are not federally funded. As a “national museum,” the institution is shackled to the public and government regardless. Should government-supported museums focus on broadening minds or should these institutions present the politically correct, historical narrative craved by some, despite the inaccuracies?
Federal museums have an obligation to their citizens. Presenting any subject through rose-colored glasses is a disservice to the nation. At a given moment any museum, no matter how expansive, cannot thoroughly and effectively represent the incredible diversity of an entire nation; even the Smithsonian cannot be all things for everyone. Not all topics are comfortable. The most difficult subjects are sometimes the most instructive and, should a museum dare to approach controversial topics without diluting them, enable Americans to have a clearer sense of their history. Should curators at federally funded institutions try to “push the envelope?” Absolutely. Controversy is dramatic, exciting and draws people to exhibitions, even if they disagree with an exhibit’s overall message. In the end, museums can never please everyone. While curators should be sensitive to their audiences, handling individuals like museum objects – with white cotton gloves – is not acceptable. By avoiding difficult topics, curators are anticipating public response and suggesting audiences cannot handle mature subjects. Steven Dubin writes in Displays of Power, “Worrying about someone else’s reaction means that you believe that you know what it’s going to be in advance” (p. 145). Among museums, federally funded institutions are best situated to deal with difficult topics within the American experience, past and present. If federal museums do not reexamine the history United States, who can (or should)? A politically correct stance is often not neutral and continues to promote antiquated hierarchies of power within society. Certain topics need a venue like the Smithsonian, which is better positioned than other museums to rigorously reevaluate our nation’s position within history and the world.
Please Note: I have great respect federal institutions like the Smithsonian and the challenges they face. As a national museum, the Smithsonian is in a unique situation. I am not implying that the Smithsonian does not presently educate the public or that it should become a venue to “bash” America. The discussion above is largely based on opinion rather than fact. It is meant to raise questions derived from my reading of Steven C. Dubin’s Displays of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to Sensation (1999).