Displays of Power: Consciously Creating Controversy in Museum Exhibitions

Displays of Power takes you through the details of six of the most controversial museum exhibits of the last fifty years. This text illustrates that even when museum staff have the best intentions, exhibits are not created or viewed in a vacuum. Museum staff can choose to consciously create controversy in the interest of fueling important discussions or bringing light to ideas that cause visitors to closely examine their perspectives on important issues. However, if audience reception or the social, political and economic context is not carefully considered when addressing controversial topics, the aim of the exhibit can backfire quickly.

Featured image

 Photo taken from the website of National Museums Liverpool

I spoke about controversy in museums with accomplished museum professional Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier, whose career path has lead her to be director of the exhibit design and publication firm, REW & Co.. Snyder-Grenier has worked on a few exhibits that featured content subject to controversy, specifically an exhibit about the impact of AIDS in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Historical Society in the early 1990s, and on the Newark riots/civil disorders of 1967 at the New Jersey Historical Society, exhibited in the early 2000s. I asked Snyder-Grenier if she thought museums should be tackling controversial issues, and why – she answers with, “I think the bigger question is, ‘what are the important issues that we need to address?’ and if they are controversial – to some – so be it.” She goes on to describe the holistic approach the NJ Historical Society took when approaching the topic of the Newark Riots of ’67. Before beginning to design the exhibit, the museum brought in a group called, “Facing History and Ourselves” to work with the entire staff – the curators, exhibit designers, director, front line staff, custodian – to process and understand feelings, both their own and the feelings of others, about race. Snyder-Grenier concludes that controversial topics should absolutely be approached if they fulfill the museum’s mission, but with very careful, measured planning. She also mentions that timing is an important factor to consider – although the Newark riots happened about thirty years ago, the museum staff agreed that they needed to be approached delicately as it was/is still “a very deep, raw subject”.

Ellen Snyder-Grenier also pointed me in the direction of David Fleming, director of The Museum of Liverpool, and suggested that we examine his thoughts on social justice/controversy in museums as well. Below you will find two links to content Ellen suggests, but of course you can do your own Googling of his work as well!

The Political Museum by David Fleming

David Fleming – The Ideas Behind the Museum of Liverpool

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2 Responses to Displays of Power: Consciously Creating Controversy in Museum Exhibitions

  1. kimnmccleary says:

    I agree that museums need to tackle controversial issues within that cultural institution setting to help create dialogue, but it can go horrible wrong.

  2. emilykp47 says:

    Facing History and Ourselves sounds like a fascinating approach. I’d love to see it being used in more museums. It’s great that they brought in everyone for the training; it’s so important to have the entire staff involved, including the non-curators.

    I absolutely agree that important issues need to be addressed, whether or not they’re controversial, but that they need to be carefully approached and planned. I’d be curious to see the exhibit on Newark that Snyder-Grenier worked on, and see what the reaction from the community was. Was it well-received, or did it generate more controversy?

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