The University Record, April 3, 1995

Controversial exhibitions focus of symposium

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Museum curators and directors, historians, scholars and students will gather at Rackham Auditorium April 19 for a free, public symposium focusing on issues that face museums when they create exhibitions involving controversial subjects.

"Presenting History: Museums in a Democratic Society," co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the U-M, will provide a forum for discussions on ways that museums can best handle controversial subjects. The conference will be organized in three sessions with panels comprised of the academic and museum communities as well as military and journalistic perspectives. The sessions are "Exhibiting Controversial Subjects," "The Enola Gay Exhibit: A Case Study in Controversy" and "Museums in a Democratic Society."

Homer A. Neal, vice president for research and a member of the Smithsonian's board of regents, anticipates that the symposium will provide a scholarly view of the complexities involved in developing interpretive exhibits of historical events.

"In co-sponsoring this symposium, the University hopes to facilitate a scholarly understanding of factors and forces that contribute to a 'controversial' exhibit and how the museum and the public can best respond to these forces," Neal says. "In addition, we hope the symposium will clarify the role museums take in enhancing the public's understanding of the nation's history."

Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman says the Smithsonian's "recent experience with its Enola Gay exhibition prompted open discussion of issues that have been, and continue to be, of concern to museum professionals for the past several years."

Controversy has engulfed several museum exhibitions in recent years, including an interpretative presentation of 19th-century landscape paintings of the American West, a re-creation of a slave auction at Williamsburg and an interpretative exhibit on the history of science in the United States.