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