The University Record, April 24, 1995

Museum officials need to listen to public voices

Museum officials need to listen to public voices

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Largely in response to controversy surrounding the failed attempt to exhibit the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution, the University and the Smithsonian Institution co-sponsored "Presenting History: Museums in a Democratic Society," a full-day symposium on exhibiting controversial subjects. The objective was to provide a scholarly atmosphere in which to discuss how and why the exhibition failed and to use the experience to prevent a similar failure, not only for the Smithsonian, but other museums as well.

John H. D'Arms, dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, and Richard Kurin, director of the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies at the Smithsonian, concluded last week's program with remarks and observations on the changes in responsibilities of museum directors and the challenges they face in preserving and displaying history.

In the past 30 years, historians have become "much less inclined to use uncritically words like objectivity and truth to describe their interpretations of historic events," D'Arms noted.

"Truth, many historians now believe, represents the whole set of protocols, conventions and beliefs that prevail in a specific society at a specific moment."

Both historians and academicians should continue to challenge historic interpretations but should do so with an explanation, he said. "I do not believe historians and academics have tried hard enough to explain in accessible, public language just why and how their current conceptions of truth-gathering and truth-justifying and truth-displaying are important." Kurin recaptured the "salient points" of the day's discourse.

"The Smithsonian is the most highly regarded cultural icon in the nation. It stands for what Americans would hold up to the world to illustrate who we are as a nation," he said.

When history is enshrined by the Smithsonian, he noted, it has a permanence that cannot come from television, books or newspaper accounts, which are easily passed over or discarded.

"It is a public display that has a solidity, permanence, powerful location that is not so easy to pass over."

The idea of public trust placed in the Smithsonian means that the public trusts the institution to be fair and honest, to use its accumulated knowledge and good sense in presenting history to them.

But knowledge is not always a clear and easy path to the truth, he said. Finding the truth seems much harder now than it did in the days of "empirical science." Combining and weaving together facts to narrate history requires increasingly that historians and museum curators fill in gaps with great care.

"We need to listen to those we seek to represent," he acknowledged. "But the presence of those voices should not lead to bad history any more than bad history should rule out or silence those voices."

The Smithsonian and other museums, he said, usually begin with objects, using them to begin telling the stories. But there are many histories that cannot be told because the objects are not in hand. The power of "stuff," or physical objects, make the story real.

The Smithsonian is different from other museums, Kurin said, because the public has the impression that it is sanctioned by the government, although it is not.

Homer Neal, vice president for research and a member of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, concluded the day with hope that the outcome of the symposium would be a "better understanding of what must go into the development of successful, accurate and intelligent exhibits, especially those that have controversial subjects."