This week in Intro to Museums, we read Steven Dubin’s Displays of Power, a book about some of the most important and controversial museum exhibitions of the last 60 years. In order to think about how to mount controversial exhibitions today, I spoke with Tobi Voigt, Chief Curatorial Officer at the Detroit Historical Society. The museum staff is beginning to plan an exhibition about the Detroit “riots” of 1967, to be mounted for the 50th anniversary of the event.
Tobi explained that, first and foremost, they are not using the word “riot,” choosing instead to simply call the exhibition “1967.” She explained that the word is divisive and is primarily used by white residents of Detroit, while black residents more often use “rebellion” or “uprising.” The museum is careful not to take a stand on the events that transpired, and is planning instead to let the community, with its many different viewpoints, speak for itself. One way the staff plans to accomplish this is by conducting oral history interviews with those involved in the events. The museum is also going to offer Detroiters the opportunity to submit memories online for use in the exhibition.
Tobi believes that even a traditional history museum has the responsibility to use the past to help visitors understand the present and consider the future. She hopes that this exhibition will prompt discussion of issues that remain relevant today. In the wake of the blatantly unwarranted police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, “1967” should inspire a wide range of passionate debate.