Museums and Exhibitions

In Displays of Power, Steven C. Dubin recounts the various controversial exhibitions displayed by such museums as The Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of the City of New York, and the Brooklyn Museum.  These museum exhibits became entrenched in politics and controversy based on their contents.  While the different museum staffs believed in the material they were showing, and the ideas they were trying to teach their audiences, only the Brooklyn Museum stood firm in the midst of the demands surrounding a painting in their show, Sensation.

While the Brooklyn Museum left its controversial exhibition intact, the other Museums resorted to shelving exhibitions, canceling shows, and changing labels.  This resulted in even more outrage from the public and the media, they saw this as an admission of wrongdoing from the museum, and a claim that the public had been right in their critique of the exhibitions.  According to John Cotton Dana, “Museums must be at the centers of their communities…Any publicly supported institution must do something for that public.”  Museums can do this by becoming arenas for audience interaction and dialogue, but in order to accomplish this goal the museum exhibitions must continue to exhibit the more controversial areas of American history, and create exhibitions that provoke and stimulate thoughts in their audiences.

Erik Strohl, Senior Director of Exhibitions and Collections at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum agrees, stating that a museum cannot allow its donors and visitors to direct what material will be shown in the exhibitions.  As a museum that shows how baseball has influenced American culture, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has a job to display history, and history cannot be accurate if only certain parts of history are told.  You have to include both the good and the bad.

The role of the museum is changing.  In addition to preserving and teaching history, museums are now becoming forums for discussion.  With this new role, we as museum professionals need to show a conscious awareness of the choices we make when we decide to show a thought provoking exhibition.  We must stay true to our missions and visions and make sure our audiences are taking away the right messages from our exhibitions.

If you had the choice between canceling an exhibition, changing some parts of it, or going ahead with it as planned, what would you do, and why?  What would be some of the repercussions of your choice?

The responses to some exhibitions depend upon the time in which they are shown.  How do you know when it is the best time to show certain exhibitions, or bring up new, potentially controversial ideas?


Dubin, Steven C, Displays of Power (New York:  New York University, 1999).

Bunch III, Lonnie G. “Embracing Controversy:  Museum Exhibitions and the Politics of Change,” Call the Lost Dream Back:  Essays on History, Race and Museums, 1992:  163-166.

Interview with Erik Strohl, Senior Director of Exhibits and Collections at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, November 29, 2011

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One Response to Museums and Exhibitions

  1. robecr15 says:

    I think that dilemma sparked the push toward collaboration with concerned parties / the general public before exhibit creation. Once the exhibit is made, it’s hard to change it, and removing parts that others have already seen does seem a sign a weakness. However, if an exhibit designer listens for overwhelming issues with the content/voice of the exhibit before the stage of completion, perhaps more of these conflicts can be mitigated without so much fuss. (No one is going to make everyone happy though…despite intense efforts at collaboration, the NMAI still disappointed a lot of people.)

    Reading the book, I recalled a controversial mistake by some art students at my undergraduate university that illustrates the need to ask others for feedback before implementing exhibit ideas: To create an outdoor art piece about the cycle of life and death, they chose to hang seven nooses and a tire swing from a tree on campus. They included no label to explain that it was an art piece or what they meant it to represent. It came off as a racist assault on African American students and coincided with real threats being made with nooses in another place. Furthermore, the part of campus they chose to hang these nooses (and a fact I’m certain they were not aware of) was historically a place where Civil Rights activists were trained for Freedom Summer. If they had asked anyone for advice (or taken it) the huge backlash that followed could have been avoided. If they had chosen to implement the idea in a different way or context things may have been different as well. However, even with explicit labels and protestations against the threatening connotations of the piece, I doubt the students could have prevented the outrage – only lessened it. It seems that sometimes curators are taken aback in a similar fashion, though hopefully they are much more aware of their social and cultural context than these students. I think there is strength in getting feedback and deciding to push forward with something, but you have to decide that it is important enough and right enough to fight for. Fighting just to fight is a toxic behavior.

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