The University Record, April 24, 1995

Museums should not shy from controversial displays

Museums should not shy from controversial displays

By Jared Blank

In the wake of the controversy surrounding the Smithsonian Institution's decision to scrap a planned exhibit featuring the Enola Gay, the Smithsonian and the University of Michigan hosted a symposium, "Presenting History: Museums in a Democratic Society," last Wednesday at Rackham Auditorium.

In his keynote address, Smithsonian Institution secretary Michael Heyman said that the Smithsonian has learned to take advice from many different groups because of this controversy. "I'm not at all surprised that exhibits can be controversial, nor do I think it is a bad thing." He noted that "this exhibit was remarkable in the extent of the controversy and the numbers of people across the spectrum in opposition to it."

Others agreed with Heyman's assessment that museums should not shy away from controversial topics. In the first panel discussion, "Exhibiting Controversial Subjects," Neil Harris said he believes any institution that avoids a controversial issue "deserves the criticism leveled against it." Harris, professor of history from the University of Chicago, detailed the changes in the way museums have displayed exhibitions. Museums, he said, only recently have begun to include large amounts of text with their exhibits. He believes museums blur the line between historical fact and opinion because they present exhibits with lengthy unsigned text, making narration appear to be fact, rather than the opinion of the author.

Panelist Cary Carson, vice president for research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, also believes the role of museums has changed. "One of their increasing responsibilities is to criticize and comment," Carson said. He feels that museums have a dual responsibility: they should give a critical analysis of a topic and celebrate it. He believes "that is a combination that I think academics don't feel they have to offer in one dish."

The Enola Gay is not the first time a proposed exhibit has stirred controversy. Edward Linenthal, professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, said he has worked on a number of projects in which there has been public backlash. While working on the creation of the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C., he constantly had to weigh the historical value of a specific exhibit against the possibility of offending people. "Doing it one way meant you were desecrating the memory of survivors" but, he asked, what would be the historical implications of leaving out pieces of history?

According to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, professor of performance studies at New York University, an effective way to combat the uproar caused by controversial exhibits is to make the exhibit's creators more accountable. "The problem with exhibits like this is that we don't know where the buck stops," she said. The museums do not make it clear who wrote the text or chose the artifacts involved.

Linenthal concluded the panel on an ominous note. He said that the National Endowment for the Humanities is turning down very good proposals because "they don't want their name associated with" controversial exhibits. He finds it troubling that it was easier to have a discourse about the Enola Gay in 1946 than it is today and warns that if people continue with "neo-McCarthyite discourse ... with ugly, slanderous attacks on curators ... we are moving to a very dangerous era."