How can museums best deal with objects of a controversial nature in their collections and on display? We have to think carefully about the distinction between controversial objects (that incite a debate) and objects that are emotionally charged. Museums shouldn’t shy away from displaying objects that are controversial, but they also need to think carefully about how an object is interpreted.
The Rensselaer County Historical Society held a public talk earlier this year titled “Controversial Objects, Controversial History” that talked about museum objects, controversy, and interpretation. Executive Director Ilene Frank told me about an 1863 letter written by Charles Gidiney. During draft riots in Troy, a mob of mostly Irish-American workers marched downtown to protest the recent Civil War draft; this peaceful atmosphere turned into a riot. In the letter Mr. Gidiney, an African-American man, pleads with the Mayor for assistance, as he and his family have been trapped inside their house for two days. The mob outside has been chanting, “Kill the N*****, Kill the N*****”. This letter is from an important time in local history, and the museum has displayed it before with a warning that it contains sensationalized language. In referencing the letter in public, someone used the full phrase; this upset others in the audience and created controversy around the object. Should the museum change how it is displayed?
How can museums best display controversial objects? Are the objects themselves controversial or does this change depending on our interpretation and where the object is displayed?