Curating Controversy

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.

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6 Responses to Curating Controversy

  1. lcbrisson says:

    I continue to be surprised by the impact of the events of 1967 in Detroit. I moved to rural Northern Michigan twenty years ago (shortly after graduation from CGP), and I am still learning about the ways those events changed communities throughout the state. I think this is one of the most important exhibits DHS will do and I look forward to seeing the multitude of ways they bring forth the issues and hopefully prokove healthy retrospection. This is a perfect example of the essential role museums can play in a community.

  2. wagnmw says:

    I really like the ideas that they have about submitting online memories. I think that way, it allows those who are no longer in the area to still tell their stories. Not only are they reaching their local community, but they are reaching a potential wide audience. My concern is how is the online portion censored? As mentioned in Nina Simon, do we let the community moderate it or do we?

    The DHS really does a great job considering word usage and this really highlights the need of choosing your words carefully in an exhibit especially dealing with controversy.

  3. TobiV says:

    Thank you for the support! We are just at the beginning of the planning phase for this, as we know it will take the next two years to do it properly. We’re starting by putting together a community advisory committee to help identify all perspectives and a panel of scholars to help us frame the content accurately and appropriately. Our next challenge is to determine the best way to design this exhibition, which will be heavy on images and media but light on artifacts.

    As for the online portion, we will simply be creating a process for community members to share their stories with us directly, via a web form. At this point we have not envisioned a forum or other “live” online community to gather stories. However, we will be pursuing every possible option to create dialogues about the topic when the exhibit opens, including online communities. As Nina Simon also says, we need to make sure we put a lot of thought and planning into the design to ensure our participatory device works effectively! There is just so much to think about, but we are excited and committed to making this a profound community exhibit/experience/dialogue.

  4. emilykp47 says:

    This is a very tricky topic for an exhibition. Obviously it is important to talk about, as the events of 1967 still affect people today and museums absolutely do have the responsibility to help visitors understand the present and consider the future. However, as much as the museum tries to remain neutral, by their choices of what to display they are inherently taking a stand. I’m sure there are conflicting versions of what happened during the events; is the museum planning to present all possible interpretations? I’m sure that at some point, at least one person will complain that the exhibit is biased. I wonder how the museum plans to address these issues. It will be interesting to see how the exhibit turns out and the reactions from the community. Good luck to the Detroit History Museum!

  5. gretchensorin says:

    The Detroit Historical Society is tackling an incredibly timely and important issue. Bravo! We are looking forward to your model project!

  6. lyndssj says:

    I’m really glad that you are bringing current issues into the conversation in this post. Ferguson is such a hot topic right now, and the need for dialog is so great.

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