Political Museums, Exhibits that Provoke

Our readings for Managing History this week continue the trend of considering the political dimensions of public history. While the readings–Andrea Burns’ From Storefront to Monument, Edward Linenthal’s oft-assigned postmortem of the Enola Gay controversy, and an article by Ken Yellis on Fred Wilson and provocation–are united in examining exhibits, they engage different facets of how museum spaces can be freighted with political meaning (with or without the curator intending it).

Ken Yellis ruminates first on what makes Fred Wilson’s historically-minded art pieces political–the unexpected, the bait-and-switch–and then wonders why museum professionals cannot, or at least do not, stage similarly effective exhibits more often. Yellis concludes that Wilson’s outsider role allows him to subvert expectations while taking on responsibility for the success or failure of the exhibit. In contrast, Yellis sees many museums staging “safe” exhibits as the potential consequences of controversy loom ever larger in lean times for cultural institutions.

Edward Linenthal recounts the familiar story of the atomic controversy over the National Air and Space Museum’s aborted Enola Gay exhibit of 1995. The plane sat in storage for much of the 50 years that followed WWII in large part because various caretakers and curators did not know how to exhibit it or even if it should be exhibited. When the calls for its display were finally heeded, it was not by the old-guard curators who had lived through WWII but by Martin Harwit, the museum’s director, who belonged to a post-war generation that were “sensitive to criticism that for too long their museum had merely been a showcase for aircraft, [and] now wanted to place their artifacts in historical context.” (20)

This critical framework came up against the reverential “commemorative membrane” that Linenthal argues some artifacts engender, as well as the history of the NASM itself, which had long been a purveyor of progress narratives, often under-written by the military-industrial complex. The Enola Gay exhibit wasn’t the first NASM foray into more provocative interpretation, but it became the lightning rod.

In From Storefront to Monument, Andrea Burns doesn’t focus on any one exhibit (though she includes brief descriptions of many along the way, such as “The Rat–Man’s Invited Affliction”) but instead shows how the formative ideology of a museum can politicize its public offerings, or a genesis born of compromise with untrusted authorities can undermine an institution’s credibility. Burns holds up the neighborhood Black History institutions of the 1960s as examples of successful museums of resistance and community identity-building. She holds these in contrast with the controversial origins and compromised execution of the African American Museum of Philadelphia and, in fact the latter forms of some of those trail-blazing museums.

I found Burns’ consideration of these institutions’ various evolutions to be fascinating. We often think of cultural institutions as constants, providing a steadiness as the world around them experiences volatility, but as Linenthal’s exploration of the interpretive changes the Smithsonian institutions embraced in the 1980s and 1990s, this is not so, even with our nation’s most enduring museums. Burns eloquently positions the dilemma: “How should a museum respond if the original community surrounding the institution has changed or been displaced [?]…Yet to insist that a museum established in 1969 should still function, in terms of mission and identity, in the same manner ten or twenty years later is also problematic.” (181)

Burns suggests, paraphrasing Anacostia Neighborhood Museum’s John Kinard, that museums can change to retain relevance for the right reasons (i.e. because there is a societal need not being filled) or the wrong ones (i.e. to stay afloat financially) and that the two motives result in very different results. In part the difference is that the first motive can lead to provocation and the latter leads to disingenuous bet-hedging.

How long should a cultural institution last? Does it make any difference if it is counter-cultural in its origins? If a counter-cultural museum finds that its original ideology is obsolete (I’m not contending that any of those in Burn’s book are), is it better to evolve or close? I’m reminded of the moment in High Fidelity (and I’m thinking of the movie here, though I imagine it’s a line in the book too) where Barry wonders whether it is “unfair to criticize a formerly great artist [Stevie Wonder] for his latter day sins; is it better to burn out than to fade away?” Would some of the museums that Yellis derides be better off going out in a blaze of Wilsonian glory than delivering safe, reheated exhibits?



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 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996).

Ken Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” Curator: The Museum Journal 52 (October 2009): 333-48.


A Postscript:

I was heartened to read this statement from the National Council on Public History in response to the results of the election: http://ncph.org/history-at-work/a-response-to-the-election/

I think it makes a concrete case for public historians’ role in this time. I hope that the NCPH would have issued something similar regardless of the election results (public history is no less relevant in an America ruled by the Democratic Party) but I think the particular contours of Trump’s rhetoric made for some stirring stuff in this call to action. And Cathy Stanton, who wrote The Lowell Experiment, is one of the authors!


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