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  • Writer's pictureEmma Thorne-Christy

Ruffling Feathers

Combating Common Fears of Exhibiting Political Subject Matter

Now that I’ve explored how museums participate in politics and activism, I want to explore common fears that arise in museum teams when a team member suggests exhibiting a political subject. I’ve found that there is often a tension between the museum’s aspirations of exhibiting contentious or political subjects and its fear of trying something new, or perhaps “unorthodox” to the museum. This fear of change, or growth, often holds the museum back from reaching its goal. Change is hard, it challenges our feelings of safety and security. Museums are often incredibly risk averse, so the idea of trying new things up can feel extra difficult for these institutions.


In this article I’ll focus on 3 common concerns:

#1 : Fear of losing the museum’s trustworthiness

#2 : Fear of alienating stakeholders

#3 : Fear of presenting more feelings than facts


I hope that by exploring these anxieties and rewriting the narratives around these fears, that museum teams will find the strength to overcome these roadblocks, and expand the breadth of their exhibition subjects to contested and political topics.

 

1. Fear of Losing the Museum's Trustworthiness


The Museum’s Aspiration

Challenge audience’s perspectives and expand their minds through exploring contentious subjects in the exhibition. In fact, research shows audiences do want these type of experiences from their museum visit. (1)


The Fear

By displaying political topics in the exhibition, the museum will lose its “impartiality” and trustworthiness, negatively impact its reputation.


Challenge to this Fear

Is there hard evidence to justify this fear? As museum researcher Richard Sandell notes, “…concerns about impartiality are used as an excuse to avoid engaging with social issues and acknowledging that museums of all kinds—including those that make the strongest claims of neutrality—embody particular moral standpoints.” (2) Data analyst and marketer Colleen Dilenschneider explains the factors that actually go into a cultural institutions’ reputation, use these to gauge if challenging your audience’s perspectives will actually influence your reputation here.


Rewriting the Fear’s Narrative

By displaying political topics in the exhibition, the museum encourages visitor growth and inspires personal transformation.

 

2. Fear of Alienating Stakeholders


The Museum’s Aspiration

Create exhibitions that highlight the political struggles of diverse groups in order to be an inclusive museum space where everyone feels welcome.


The Fear

By displaying political topics in the gallery, the museums may alienate its stakeholders, particularly the public, and polarize the audience.


Challenge to this Fear

Who is included in the museum's definition of "the public"? Who is currently excluded or already feels alienated? Could displaying political topics in the gallery actually bring excluded groups in? This fear of alienation is actually helping maintain the museum’s status quo of who is a stakeholder. Who is the museum privileging by staying the same way?


Rewriting the Fear’s Narrative

By displaying political topics in the gallery, we are creating a space that acknowledges the diversity of people’s perspectives and reflects the diversity of the communities we wish to invite into our museum.


 

3. Fear of Presenting Feelings vs. Facts



The Museum’s Aspiration

Make exhibitions that are relevant and reflective of our times.


The Fear

By displaying political topics in the gallery, the museum will be presenting a great deal more feelings than facts, and in turn create a subjective rather than objective narrative.


Challenge to this Fear

Is having a multi-narrative, layered and web-like narrative in the exhibition actually a negative? Is it actually an opportunity to explore how narratives are framed and language used. Perhaps performing objectivity is actually dangerous (listen here to learn more).


Rewriting the Fear’s Narrative

By displaying political topics in the gallery, and exhibiting the diversity of perspectives and experiences on the controversy, the exhibition is reflective of the pluralistic nature of our society.

 

Before I leave you to reflect on how these fears surface in your museum, I pose this question for you: Other narrative forms (TV, film, books, podcasts, radio, music, theater) tackle contentious issues, so why shouldn’t we do so in narrative environments such as exhibits?


References

  1. Ferguson, Linda. “Pushing Buttons: Controversial Topics in Museums.” Australia: Open Museum Journal, 2006, p. 8-10.

  2. Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference, by Richard Sandell, Routledge, 2008, p. 196.


 

ABOUT THIS SERIES: This is the third in a series of articles by Emma Thorne-Christy on Museums, Politics and Activism. The series explores how museums across the U.S. publicly engage with politics and activism to encourage and help guide museums to address contentious or “political” subjects effectively through inspiring critical thinking, self-reflection, and dialogue amongst their visitors.

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