Stigmatic Representation in Museums

With the paradigm shift in museums and the awareness that museums are far more accountable to their communities, increased pressure arises to provide social commentaries through interpretation. A significant issue in American history has been the history of disease, especially tuberculosis. Today, there still exists a stigma surrounding those that are infected with the disease. According to Katherine Ott, author of Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture since 1870, this is bred out of the turn of the 20th century view that the disease was based on racial “biology”, not social issues such as poverty, nutrition and shelter. The perception of tuberculosis was also bred out of a lacking historical record that claimed that slavery provided an example of better health for the black population; when in fact slave owners often did not report disease among slaves. Tuberculosis became a justification for segregation and even created a desire amongst white society to force African Americans into paid agricultural work only. White society wanted minorities, specifically blacks, to be removed from industrial society. In the 1990s when her book was published, Ott claimed, “Americans are far more scared of tuberculosis than pneumonia even though pneumonia is far more deadly.” Perceptions of the disease are still ingrained in society and these perceptions have even influenced how we respond to new issues, such as HIV/AIDS.  How, as museum professionals, can we use our platform as a public forum to encourage our community to discuss various stigmatic populations or issues, in order to break down these stigmas and find the root of our social issues?

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9 Responses to Stigmatic Representation in Museums

  1. varljt75 says:

    Interesting how this ties in to what we’ve been talking about in Migration and Community, with Jim Crow and the Great Migration. Just another aspect of trying to keep slavery in all but name.

  2. peteglog says:

    Could we start by looking at issues people already talk about and somehow incorporate the tough issues? Visitors will not likely come to an exhibit they do not want to converse with, but they will come to an exhibit about something that they and their friends already have engaged with.

  3. at01lang says:

    For museums to be effective public platforms to discuss these stigmatic issues, one thing they must do is provide the larger context for how these perceptions that surround diseases and other social issues originated and became ingrained in people’s thinking. When an understanding of these interconnected ideas is brought out, we can clearly see the absurdity undermining them, and why they are simply not true. And to emphasize how this occurred in the past is to plant the nascent seed of an idea that something similar exists with current stigmas. Allegory to past and present is something the museum is continually involved with, and underscoring how this functions here can get people to reexamine stigmas.

    Of course, the difficulty comes in dealing with a relevant and current issue, rather than one that is far away in the past. On how to do this effectively, there are no easy answers. Circumstances will be different depending on issue, audience, and setting, and the individual museums will have to respond to this. But I still believe a general precept that can be observed here is an analysis of the past, if only to provide people a more substantive understanding of what exists at the root of stigmatic thought.

  4. kwebberj says:

    It’s fascinating to see the way that public opinion and the dominant voices in society can spin something as straightforward as a disease. Ott’s in-depth look at tuberculosis is a great model for historians. What other diseases, events, and phenomena have been utilized throughout history to serve a specific societal purpose? This is great fodder for exhibitions.

  5. saraumland says:

    Before we expect people to come to our “platform” we need to address the issue that maybe not all feel welcome at it. Making sure all people are welcome in museums is the first step toward getting people to see museums as places that address issues in our society. Once we mastered this problem I think then we can start looking at how to address larger issues in the societies we serve.

  6. juliafell17 says:

    I’m really fascinated by the issue we see here of wildly skewed data being used as justification for social stigmas. If the numbers show African Americans having less tuberculosis during the time of slavery, what other numbers can be skewed for that population? What records are incomplete for other groups over which there have been stigmas? And how does this sort of cooking of the record books still affect us today? It is well known today that data of rape and sexual assault is not accurate do due lack of self-reporting by emotionally traumatized victims. This is often used to argue that these issues “aren’t that bad” or that victims who do report are “just making it up.” I think that it is hugely important to remember the context of social reports and the power balances at play among the people involved, both in history and today.

  7. pnorman02 says:

    Like many other posts and comments on this subject, I think the best way is to link the past with the present. It helps start discussion on difficult topics and provides parallels between how it was in the past and how it is presently.

  8. It’s interesting to see how these subjective views and prejudices continue to affect our society. I would be interested in seeing an exhibit that deals with how perceptions on topics such as disease have changed over the years. From such an exhibit, people could learn that there are many subjective ways to read information and data, and that they have the ability to think carefully about how people use data and explore claims for themselves.

  9. mickcr says:

    I think a museum has the capability of hosting events and programming to ensure people have a greater understanding of controversial issues that are taking place. The museum acts as a forum, allowing people to connect previous experiences or the past to understand what is going on today.

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