Push the Envelope

What makes an exhibition controversial? In his work Displays of Power, Steven C. Dubin explores this question by using a case study analysis to promote his thesis; anything and everything can turn out to be controversial. Highlighting some of the most talked about controversial exhibitions, such as the Enola Gay fiasco and the Sensation outcry, to demonstrate the struggle of how redefining American culture is a massive task in its self. Each case study shows a different way a organization could cause controversy and how the museum staff handled the onslaught of public criticism. Dubin believes that museums are at the front lines of culture wars and as such any dynamic change to the narrative of American culture is sure to receive backlash.

With an ever-diversifying audience, museums now have to not only appeal to but bring in a wide range of cultures and people if they hope to survive. They need to so all of this without offending or depicting an inaccurate view of the people involved. To play into the misconceptions of a culture that for most of history was of “lesser” importance only makes the matter worst. It is important for museums to grow and push the boundaries of cultural acceptance. However, these issues can invoke an unexpected emotional response from any  given part of the public that could cause career-ending scenarios. Museum professionals must take this challenge in stride; if we do not push the envelope, no one gets the message.

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About joshdtaylor

Graduate Student at the Cooperstown Graduate Program
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11 Responses to Push the Envelope

  1. mickcr says:

    I agree, it is a challenge for museum professionals to decide when to draw the line and when it is their responsibility to push forward on controversial topics. Hopefully we can use examples like Sensation and the Enola Gay exhibits to teach us about how to present controversial information and how to deal with the backlash that might follow.

  2. kwebberj says:

    There’s definitely also a growing need that goes hand in hand with this change–museum professionals have to think about different groups and how they might respond. In many ways this is a step in the right direction, since they will have to critically analyze their content for inclusivity and accuracy (rather than showing the same point of view over and over again).

    • pnorman02 says:

      I agree. Often times I feel museum professionals are so focused on getting these new groups into the museum, that they don’t think longterm about how to keep them there. The program you have now may not go over as well as the program/exhibit you have in a year. Always keeping your audience in mind, especially when it comes to diverse groups, is challenging, but so important.

  3. emerbr84 says:

    While I agree that we are responsible for addressing these cultural issues, I do not think we need to sacrifice a career each time we want to punch the envelope. We must tread lightly because the longer we are in the field the more we can influence this change.

  4. Leanne says:

    I think there is something to be said about living memory too. If we deal with controversial topics from 200 years ago, not many people will become enraged at the interpretation, but when we are mucking around in the field of living memory, like the Enola Gay, things become more sensitive. Representing many sides of the story could solve this, but many topics are sill controversial.

    • saraumland says:

      Leanne makes a good point, is it right to “muck” around in topics that have such strong living memories in the first place? The line becomes so thin when people try to decide what is right to display and what is not right to display. When does educational become insensitive? Can museums curators relly get the actual whole story when the incident is so near, as the picture can not yet be completely formed?

  5. at01lang says:

    While I did not agree with all of Dubin’s point, I readily agree with his idea that museums are on the front lines of the culture wars, whatever and wherever they may be. The responsibility museums have to interpret such a diverse array of different areas of history and culture guarantees nearly all museums can potentially fall into the crossfire. The need for museum professionals to confront the challenge of doing so, especially for culture war issues that are relevant and within living memory, is important for museums to remain relevant. For if done effectively, with proper account for what might happen, museums can help shape a better understanding of these issues and contribute to an environment of more effective dialogue and explanation, rather than a heated environment of quick accusations, vague intentions, and all together not-on-the-same-pageness that spurred so many of these struggles. Museums must endeavor to explore this key issues, and do so in a way that speaks to their nature as institutions of public education.

  6. juliafell17 says:

    Museums are caught in the same difficult position that many of us are in as individuals: being as politically correct as possible. Striving to be as inclusive of all ways of life as one can is crucial to a museum which aims to be progressive and appealing to diverse audiences. However, care must be taken when inclusivity verges on crossing cultural lines, such as when interpretation is undertaken by those who do not belong to that culture. Likewise, items or exhibits which are correctly interpreted but vastly different than what the audience might be expecting should be clearly explained to optimize understanding and cut down on confusion or possible offense.

  7. thankyouluke says:

    I think that Enola Gay in particular is a perfect example to explain the American myth that the United States ALWAYS does the right thing. Many were upset, especially the Air Force Association, because the museum reveled something to the public that challenged this thought. I am not going to get into a debate here on whether or not the bombs were necessary to end the war or even if they DID end the war. But, an undeniable fact is that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children lost their lives in these two bombings, something the public tends to excuse in the name of war. Museums should present history as it was, not history as we want it to be. I believe that museums can be influential in helping the public address these “sacred cow” moments in history and to help the public come to its own conclusion with all the facts presented to them on what really happened.

  8. karissa430 says:

    I think it’s interesting thinking about how museums are reflective of culture or the makers of culture. Visitors seek out museum experiences to find themselves and their place in the world. If museums display jarring, controversial, or uneasy topics, visitors have difficulties finding where they fit in.

  9. Skúli Sæland says:

    Reblogged this on Menningarmiðlun ehf. and commented:
    Steve Dubin kenndi hraðkúrs í HÍ um menningarátök innan safna. Flottur kennari og heillandi viðfangsefni.

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