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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Culture Clash in Museum Exhibits

Steven Dubin’s “Displays of Power” delves into the ways museums affect the public’s view of sub and major cultures within their communities. As an anthropologist, the concepts were riveting, because museums have long been a bastion of cultural superiority. Reading about public backlash against museums whose exhibits question the greater culture (as with the “Enola Gay” exhibit attempt) or museums that attempt to display the “other” culture without consulting that culture( like “Harlem on My Mind”) gets to the very root of ethnocentric Western ideologies.

I interviewed Amy McKune, Director of Museum Collections at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, about her experiences and viewpoints on museums presenting controversial exhibits. While she has not been part of any exhibitions that have resulted in public backlash, she believes it is part of a museum’s role to present compelling exhibits, which sometimes become controversial. One of her points I found particularly compelling involves the way in which exhibits about Native culture are displayed. As Amy pointed out, some of the largest government museums still keep displays that are outdated and do not always reflect current thinking about standards of collections care.

I found her point particularly compelling in regards to public reaction. Museums have made a shift if trying to change outdated exhibits regarding Native cultures. But it seems odd to me that more outrage on the community’s is not directed at these outdated exhibits. It makes me wonder: is this due largely in part to how we are educated, or rather not educated, about Native cultures as a larger society?

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Interpretation & Value

In her work, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America, Jennifer Anderson examines the socioeconomic effects of the mahogany industry. Anderson discusses the mahogany logging industry in the Caribbean as demand for mahogany materials rose in England and America. As mahogany trees were logged, often by small groups of enslaved peoples, the forest were ravaged and lost much of its biodiversity. It was not only the forest that was impacted by the demand for the beautiful wood. Enslaved peoples toiled at the hands of slave masters and plantation owners who were only concerned with the import and export of material.

But what does this mean for museums? Perhaps, it could influence the traditional display of material. I spoke with Jessica Michak, archivist for Deadwood History, Inc. about the importance of contextualizing material culture. She commented that although an organization my have the best of intentions while displaying objects professionals are often constrained by time and resources. Perhaps, as emerging museum professionals we can push the bounds of traditional interpretation. Through exploring the origin of materials and broadening our scope we can approach a more contextualized display.

Ms. Michak and I also discussed the value of objects such as mahogany pieces, both historical and economic. For me, this raised a couple of questions about the idea of value in museum settings. Is there a risk in assigning an object some kind of value? If no value is assigned is it inherently zero? And, does that value (either historic or economic) have an effect on the way that object is interpreted?

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How Do We Put a Value on History?

How do we value objects in museum collections? I interviewed Jim McCabe, chief curator at the Henry Ford Museum about this topic in relation to museums and collections.

The Henry Ford Museum uses a ranking system of 1-4 within its collections, denoting how much of a priority (and how much value) an object should have; 1 being the highest and 4 being the lowest. The ranks are assessed using these questions: How rare is the object? How much material is original to the object? Does the material particularly compliment this object’s history? Does this object tell a story that helps to advance the museum’s mission? Does it have provenance?

Do you think these questions can help to determine object value for museums?

McCabe also told me about the importance of provenance in different contexts. An object with a verified history has more value to the museum as an exhibit object, though an object with no provenance can be worth more to an educational program than an object with a documented story. Visitors can get hands-on experience with these objects without the museum worrying about harm coming to a unique item.

Objects having different values to different audiences helps to drive the Henry Ford Museum’s initiative to grow their online collections database. McCabe said that while some objects might not make for good exhibit pieces due to their specificity in topic or cumbersome physical size, people who would still find value in these objects should have access to them online.

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Do Museums Screen Their Exhibits? Or Do We?

In Jennifer Anderson’s Mahogany, readers discovered the varied history of a resource usually only represented in fancy furniture collections. The labels that accompany these pieces typically state the bare basics: approximate date, maker, and school of furniture design.

Though perfectly educational, these labels leave out a large part of the history that went into the creation of these pieces. What was the social cost of that dining table? What happened to the ecology of where that sideboard was sourced? Unfortunately, this will typically not is not the type of information visitors typically receive from the museums they visit.

Kristen Costa, curator at the Newport Restoration Foundation, readily admits that museums focus on specific features of the past. For example, the furniture on exhibit at the Whitehorne House is used to educate the public on furniture styles and the rich history of Newport’s “maker culture,” while property tours in the town very briefly touch on the varied sources and impact of Newport’s furniture trade; neither delves deeper into the topic. She states that the public isn’t interested in the furniture, so a more nuanced history most likely will not be explored.

This stance poses a serious question. If the stories are there to be told, and the material is available, why are museums not tackling them? Is it a lack of desire in the museum culture, or is a lack of interest from the public? Can public demand bring about a change in displays? I believe they can. After all, why not?

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