Museums and Controversial Objects

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?

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7 Responses to Museums and Controversial Objects

  1. okhristan says:

    I think you make a great point in questioning whether an object can be controversial as an object, or if it is the interpretation of said object that makes an object controversial. I definitely think that museums should display objects that can be controversial, as it can spark dialogue in a museum in a way that other objects cannot. It is definitely smart to be wary about the way in which these controversial objects can be interpreted, and it is up to museum curators/exhibition designers to ensure that they are responsible in the way that they present certain objects.

  2. torilee0310 says:

    I think you make a great distinction between controversial objects and emotionally charged ones. I also think display practices absolutely matter when dealing with controversial or sensitive objects. For me, a museum’s role is often to start a dialogue, which means not sensationalizing a controversial object for the sake of the gasp factor. Sometimes the most simple displays are the most powerful in their ability to allow visitors to create their own meaning. Controversial objects should always be contextualized and, if possible, multiple viewpoints should be represented. Museums should always think about their audience as well. How will they receive it? What about this issue is important for visitors? How get we make visitors think critically instead of responding defensively?

  3. caitlinmccaffrey11 says:

    I think the fact that people still feel emotional when they read things, like this letter from 1863, shows that the content within it is still relevant and must therefore be discussed in safe venues such as museums. Phrases, like the one in this document, are difficult to see and read. However, it is important for people to realize that racial issues, and disagreements on war have been a constant and still need to be talked about today.

  4. maolsen13 says:

    You ask the question as to whether objects themselves are controversial. I personally don’t believe so. I think it is out interpretation of the object or the events surrounding it that make it controversial. I feel this is true because if you place it in a museum where people of like minds attend it may not spark any controversy, but if you place it where there are differing opinions you may get a different outcome. This is important because, as with everything, you need to understand your audience. Once you understand them you can better understand how people might react and therefore display the object in a way, as Tori says, that creates dialogue but doesn’t sensationalize simply because it can.

  5. wagnmw says:

    I think we have consider the fine line that has to be balanced. You make a great point of balancing the distinction between emotional and that will incite controversy.

    So how can museum blend the two because both can be attached to one object. My example is the Enola Gay. It can be both of these concepts. I think Tori makes a good point that museum need to be a starting point for dialogue and that could lessen some of the issues. Wording and presentation will matter in this case.

  6. I agree with Tori in that these controversial items should be contextualized in order for the audience to understand the times that this phrased was used. The title of the exhibition says it all” “Controversial Objects, Controversial History.” How can we prepare museum visitors for exhibitions like these before they even come in the door?

  7. emilykp47 says:

    Your example of the letter from 1863 perfectly illustrates how careful museums have to be about language. It reminds me of how some groups have tried to ban “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because it contains the N-word. Certain words are simply not acceptable today, and museums need to be sensitive to that. However,censoring items because they contain language that is not appropriate in contemporary times doesn’t seem like a good idea either, because it ignores the context of the historical period and how we can learn and continue to grow.
    I believe museums should display objects like this letter, but only if it serves a purpose within the exhibit, not solely for shock value.There should be a clear warning about its language and an explanation to place the letter within its proper context. This could help spark constructive dialogue about controversial objects.

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