Intro to Public History Week 12: Exhibiting History

On the bookshelf:
Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument
Edward T. Linenthal, “Anatomy of a Controversy” in History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past
Ken Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” in Curator: The Museum Journal (October 2009)

This week’s readings explore what can happen when the traditional and expected narrative of American progress and exceptionalism is subverted in museum exhibits.

mining_the_museum_exhibit_label
Exhibit label from Mining the Museum, Maryland Historical Society

“Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” by Ken Yellis considers the example of the 1992-93 exhibition Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society. Fred Wilson’s critical juxtaposition of artifacts (such as a baby carriage holding a Klu Klux Klan hood) was highly controversial. Because it destabilized the expected seemingly-neutral presentation of “history” as straightforward, linear, and apolitical within the museum space (in Wilson’s own words, “They’re expecting one experience and they get another experience.”) some visitors reacted with revulsion and distrust. One such visitor remarked, “Museums are not supposed to lie to us.” Yellis, noting the relative lack of such contentious exhibitions in museums today (the article was written in 2009), wonders if the negative response that museums received from these types of efforts has affected curators with a form of PTSD. They avoid taking a stance, he hypothesizes, because they fear losing control of the visitor experience.

In the same vein, Edward Linenthal relates what can go wrong when a national museum attempts to tackle difficult questions in “Anatomy of a Controversy,” an inside look at the process behind developing the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Plagued by generational conflicts, bureaucratic red tape, and the fatal misconception that it was possible to mount an exhibition that did not make any type of political statement, the exhibition underwent numerous changes in the development process and emerged as a diluted and uncritical version of its original incarnation, upholding a narrative of American patriotism and derring-do. One thing missing from the essay, though, is an explanation why this exhibition garnered so much more controversy than the National Museum of American History’s A More Perfect Union, an exhibition about Japanese internment camps that visitors still ask about.

From Storefront to Monument charts the history of the Black Museum Movement, which

nmaahc
The NMAAHC, September 2016. (Author’s photo)

began closely related to the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement and shared aims and proponents. Museums like the DuSable Museum of African American History and Culture in Chicago and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C. were inspired by the exclusion of the African-American experience in “mainstream” large institutions. Largely believing that museums should be involved in social change in their communities, the movement has encountered issues actually instituting that change, remaining true to grassroots convictions, and adapting to developing needs in the community. As the book was written in 2013, it anticipates the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture as a watershed moment that could redefine the Black Museum Movement in scope, content, and level of community involvement. I had the opportunity to visit the NMAAHC, and while on the whole I think it very much reflects a typically “good/bad” categorical Smithsonian approach to history, there were a few exceptions. For example, an installation on the Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) critically examined the prison’s plantation past and the implications of incarcerating an overwhelmingly Black prisoner population there.

Although I can’t recall ever seeing anything at the level of Mining the Museum, I would challenge a fatalistic view of the doomed nature of ‘controversy’ in museums. I’ve seen several exhibitions over the past few years that I would categorize at the very least as nontraditional, such as Abigail DeVille’s Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars, the BMA’s Imagining HomeThe Big Graph at Eastern State Penitentiary, the President’s House Site in Independence Park, and of course my all-time favorite, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum. When I think about it, though, much of this work seems to be stewarded or inspired by the arts community rather than the history community, and I wonder if that goes back to Yellin’s point about visitor expectations- someone visiting an arts or arts-related installation perhaps anticipates a challenge to their perspective more than the same visitor in a history setting. Although both are in actuality about crafting a narrative, a history museum holds the illusion of conferring more legitimacy on this narrative. Artists are supposed to be creative; historians are supposed to “tell it like it is.”

 

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