Controversy and conflict in museums is the subject for this week. We begin with the controversy and politics surrounding the creation of museums before the content is even developed.
In From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, Andrea Burns discusses the creation of various African American history museums in cities across the US. She emphasizes the origin of these museums in the Black Power movement as a response to the lack of black history in all other museums of the 1960s. She also focuses on the way these museums came from and interacted with their communities (and how that changed over time). She focuses on the founding of four museums in detail, including the African American Museum of Philadelphia (AAMP, which has a very different story from the others). She then discusses problems faced by these and similar museums in the 80s and 90s, involving the effects of the new social history movement and mainstreaming of the underrepresented into all museums. She ends by discussing the creation of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the opposition to it.
The conflict on where to put the AAMP raised some significant issues. In the case of the other museums, planners chose to put them in black communities to provide easy access to the community for visitation, events, and outreach. In Philadelphia, they wanted to put the museum in a white community, with the basis of that area once being a black community. This presents several problems, most important of which is accessibility: 6th and Pine is a decent walk from the Market-Frankford line, which visitors would probably have to transfer to from the Broad Street line ($3.60 total with tokens, probably a 40 minute journey including the walking), and wouldn’t it be better if they could simply walk to the museum from their domicile anyway? Certainly makes it harder to reach out to the community it serves. Second, the argument that is was once a black community isn’t strong enough, because before that it was a white community, and even belonged alternately to the Dutch, Swedish, and Lenape. Finally, the conflict exacerbated a disturbing trend of delegitimizing opposition by simply calling them racists (or sexists, or bigots, whatever) and thereby discrediting any argument and shutting down any dialogue.
In History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, Edward Linenthal discusses the controversy surrounding the proposed Enola Gay exhibit. He documents the events from the idea to the initial refusal to change the script to all of its revisions to the eventual cancellation of the exhibit. I think the biggest problem here was the lack of care in creating balance in a time when America was fighting the culture wars.
"First we wonder, then we read" . . . SO TRUE!
In “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” Ken Yellis discusses his thoughts on how museums should engage controversy. He argues there is a way and a need to do it well. He compares reactions to Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, the failed Enola Gay exhibit, and his exhibit on swallows to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and why. I liked his challenges to museums: are we telling or showing? Are we didactic or seductive? Do we transmit data, or offer insights? I also like his idea of using objects to make visitors wonder, and therefore read. It rings so true for me: I chose public history because objects and real things attract me and get my interest far more than books ever will.