We Don’t Have to Please Everyone: Presenting Controversial Topics in Museums

Over the past year, the main issue I have encountered in the museum world is the presentation of topics that are considered controversial. As this conversation has come to the forefront, it has helped me realize that I’ve been dealing with this issue for longer than I realized. Having spent most of my career in history and science museums, there has been no shortage of difficult conversations, interpretations of objects/exhibits that differ wildly from my own, and struggles to share information that executives find to be too controversial.

Interpretation is often at the center of the conversation when discussing controversy in museums. Each person who interacts with an exhibit or an object has the opportunity to develop their own interpretation. This is often guided by the method in which the museum chooses to interpret, but it doesn’t always work that way. Years ago, while a Museum Educator at the Franklin Institute, I was operating an exhibit called the Spin Ride. In a conversation about angular momentum and centrifugal force, a museum guest claimed that my explanation disproved evolution because there is no mathematical formula to prove it. It’s hard to imagine an exhibition designer considering this reaction when creating this exhibit. This situation is a perfect example of any object’s ability to be interpreted in a way that could lead to an uncomfortable discussion.

Despite the fact that almost anything can be, in some far out way, considered controversial, some museums are hesitant to address serious issues head on. There are historic sites and museums that shy away from mentioning slavery. Science museums meet with lawyers to develop language that explains their position on evolution in the least offensive manner possible. If slavery was a part of the reality of the site or period you interpret, why ignore it? Why does a science institution even need to have a position statement on evolution? Shouldn’t museum guests expect to find history at a history museum and science at a science museum? For that matter, shouldn’t they expect an art museum to depict nude people or violent imagery?

Obviously there are a lot of factors influencing these decisions. As a long-time frontline employee, I understand that our guests can be quick to offend. The aforementioned example from the Franklin Institute is just the tip of the iceberg as it pertains to bizarre guest interpretations of museums. Beyond the guest, there are executives, trustees, and donors to consider. How can the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History be expected to put together a legitimate exhibit about climate change when David Koch sits on the board and pumps money into the institution?

Earlier this year, I was asked how I think history should be presented. In my opinion, the best approach for historic institutions is to be transparent, direct, and honest. Glossing over negative or less popular parts of their history tarnish an organization’s reputation much more than addressing the issue. Avoiding the discussion of negative or controversial topics lessens the impact of an organization’s ability to share the more positive aspects of their history.

I’m interested to see how this issue plays out in the near future, particularly here in Philly. Will the Museum of the American Revolution discuss the class, race, and gender issues of the time? Will there be an opportunity to examine some of the negative effects the war had on the average citizen? Or will we get a shrine to the founding fathers, waving the flag, and Independence Day? Similarly, will science museums like the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences take a strong stance on topics like climate change?

What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you have examples of museums doing well with controversy? How do you think the role of the museum as a public forum has been evolving in recent years? As always, your feedback is welcome in the comments below or at phillyemp@gmail.com.

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