In the book, “Displays of Power” by Steven Dubin, Dubin asserts that “Museums are important venues in which a society can define itself and present itself publicly. Museums solidify culture, endow it with a tangibility in a way few other things do.” Considering this statement and the huge implications of power that it holds, what culture do we as a society choose to solidify? Who ultimately decides and how?
Dubin argues that the role of the museum is changing to be both that of cultural temple and that of cultural forum. Forums are where the cultural battles are fought and temples are where the victors rest. If the role of the museum is opening up to allow for more voices to be heard and more stories to be told then necessarily the old stories need to be eclipsed to make room for the new. The cultural redefinition of the role of the museum has lead to heated debates on the topics of representation and responsibility, the control of expression, and elitism versus populism.
The issue of censorship follows closely in a discussion of controversy in exhibitions. Pablo Picasso once wrote that, “When a painting is finished, it goes on changing according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it.” In a museum the audience is vast and moods, backgrounds, and interpretations vary greatly. Pieces of art and culture are taken out of their original contexts and continually re-arranged to satisfy the needs of various exhibitions. With all of these variables it is often hard to avoid controversy. But is controversy necessarily a negative thing for museums to deal with? Where there is controversy there is passion, care, and community awareness. There is a chance to discuss and re-examine cultural concepts. Do we not grow as a society from what we heatedly discuss? And if the role of the museum is in fact evolving to be that of a community forum then it must be the museum’s role to make room facilitate community discussions.
Dr. Stephen Perkins, Director and Curator of the Lawton Gallery in Green Bay, Wisconsin has dealt first hand with the issue of censorship. In 2005 the Lawton Gallery brought in the traveling exhibition entitled, “Axis of Evil: The Secret History of Sin.” The Chancellor of the gallery’s university censored one piece from the show. This act of censorship ignited the student body and community in a heated debate about censorship, community morals, and what should or should not be presented in the gallery space. Discussions took place in the gallery, news articles were written, tv stations were present, and workshops to better understand the topics at hand were set up. I believe that if we look to this example as a model, we as museums can in fact take the attack of censorship and turn it into an educational opportunity. Dr. Perkins further states that if we as curators are overly concerned with the consequences of what we present to the public then we will eventually no longer be willing to take risks. And if we do not take risks that force people to think, discuss, and learn from each other then there is no point in curating to begin with.
Dubin asks these open questions: “Why do groups feel that so much is at stake in what is depicted in museums and how it is presented?” And “Why can’t exhibits be dismissed as irrelevant or simply wrong?” I believe that the answer is quite simply, Museums Matter. People understand innately that what is presented and validated by the museum is what will survive to represent us culturally in the future. And so it is important for museums to not be afraid of controversy because I believe that through those battles is how we best define our collective culture.
By Jenna Neumann
Dubin, Steven C, Displays of Power (New York: New York University, 1999).
Interview with Dr. Stephen Perkins, Director and Curator at the Lawton Gallery in Green Bay, WI, November 30, 2011