Thursday, July 15, 2010

Should a History Museum Present Controversial Subjects?

The Highline Historical Society’s July 2010 exhibit at SeaTac City Hall of Pulitzer Prize-winning Herblock cartoons, along with political cartoons by local artists, provoked some complaints about content. Micki Ryan, former curator for the Society, responds.

by Micki Ryan

Should a history museum present exhibits of people and moments in history that have caused or reflected discord – or not? These questions are not new. They are questions every museum faces when its mission is to educate the public. For a history museum the question becomes, is it possible to present contemporary or historic political milieu without being interpreted as politically charged? If historical context provokes discomfort, is a museum true to its mission if withholding the historical point of view from its audience?

Answers to these questions come from many museums, and have been presented as articles in journals, blogs, forums, and publications. All agree that no matter the subject, a museum is obliged to present a variety of views and a balance between artifacts and text when representing diverse groups, recent history or popular culture. Cited were the Smithsonian exhibit of WW II’s Enola Gay bomber, an estate auction including slaves in Williamsburg, a P.T. Barnum Circus sideshow, and taking American POWs in recent wars.

A museum’s audience will include victims of wars, heroes, the disabled and the disenfranchised, whose histories are represented in the above stories. Tools used by those museums to achieve balance while presenting truthful information included the use of a media plan for conversing with the press, and opportunities for museum visitors to voice their opinions in the use of a visitor comment book.

Not surprisingly, museum visitors in the cases above were completely positive. They commented that in the case of recent history, the truth and facts were well documented and so could not be hidden or ignored. Where the museum presented multiple perspectives honestly and objectively, visitor controversy over the topic did not emerge. As one local museum visitor commented, “One of the purposes of museums is to foster learning and to encourage discussion.”

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