May 25th, 2008 by Wendy Pollock

House of Terror, BudapestAre there topics you, or others you know, consider “unexhibitable”? The AAM’s National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME) wants to hear about them. The Fall 2008 issue of the NAME journal, Exhibitionist, will consider this and related questions, and the editor, Gretchen Jennings, and Boston Museum of Science exhibit developer Maureen McConnell are looking for comments and reflections now. We also hope you’ll share any case studies and reviews here on ExhibitFiles to build up our collective record. We’ve already seen some examples (was the House of Terror in Budapest a concept that would have been considered impossible 30 years ago?).

More specifically, what Gretchen and Maureen want to know is: If there are ideas or topics you consider to be “unexhibitable” — that is, incapable of being made into an engaging museum exhibition — why is that? These are some of the reasons people have already mentioned:

- too controversial or sensitive
- too violent
- too revolting or disgusting
- too abstract
- too ordinary or insignificant
- untimely – could/could not have been exhibited years ago (or perhaps could e in a few years), but not now
- constrained by place – my museum/country could/could not do it, as opposed to another museum/country

On the other hand, if you think there is nothing that cannot be exhibited, could you share your thinking? Post your comments right here in the ExhibitFiles blog — or write to Gretchen or Maureen. If you’re willing to have your comments considered for inclusion in the issue, please respond by June 15 and identify yourself so they can contact you.

22 Responses to “Unexhibitable?”

  1. Colin Purrington Says:

    Images and sculptures of Mohamed over the ages comes to mind almost immediately. Perhaps as part of an exhibit of different cultures’ prophets, gods, and miscellaneous dieties. Mythology exhibits seem to focus on religions that are out of vogue; it would be edutaining to see them thrown in with modern ones, with some good signage on comparative mythology. A Scientology display would be a must, too.

    Images of Mohamed would be objectionable to some, of course, so it might be fun to render him with invisible ink, and then give viewers special glasses that allow the image to be viewed. Then the responsibility is on them, not the museum.

  2. Colin Purrington Says:

    I guess that should be “Mohammed” not “Mohamed”.

  3. Em Blamey Says:

    This is very topical in Australia at the moment given the current outcry and possible child pornography prosecutions over an “Art” exhibition here featuring photos of a naked 13 year old girl.
    However, as regards our institution – Questacon – our main concern in considering potentially controversial topics (such as sex and drugs, which have both been considered for science exhibitions), is their suitability for the primary age students who come in large numbers, as we don’t really want to restrict access to particular areas. The catch 22 is that we want to do more for teenagers and upwards, but some things that are very topical for them might not be deemed appropriate for others. Should we have a “16 and up” rated gallery?
    When we canvassed our members about an exhibition on sex, a lot of parents said they’d like to bring their kids there and use it as a way to start discussing the subject with them, but many wouldn’t want their kids to see it without them.
    It’s hard to find a balance between attracting new audiences / engaging youth / tackling controversial issues and keeping the centre “family friendly”. So far we have tended toward the latter and have yet do tackle either sex or drugs.

  4. Gretchen Jennings Says:

    Thank you, Colin and Em, for your comments. Every posting brings a new perspective! Certainly religion and sex are two topics musuems have tended to avoid. Gretchen Jennings

  5. Kathleen McLean Says:

    Yes, religion and sex are usually taboo. But what about current politics? Although most people would probably agree that politics should be at the center of public dialogue and debate, I don’t think many museums would want to meander through that murky ground.

  6. Wendy Pollock Says:

    True, it’s not common for museums to invite debate about current politics. Even wars and other forms of human cruelty that happened years ago can still be contentious.

    But some museums are hosting dialogue and debate events about current issues. And then there are some exhibitions that invite people to record and post their views. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has taken on policy issues directly, even providing postcards for visitors to use to write to the governor about offshore marine reserves. And the Museum of Science, Boston, has Forum exhibitions that allow people to make video-recordings of their opinions about issues like wind turbines off the coast of Cape Cod. I’d say that making ways for visitors to contribute directly is an effective strategy for taking on some of those topics traditionally considered too risky to touch.

  7. Aaron Goldblatt Says:

    It’s tough to imagine something that is intrinsically “unexhibitable.” It’s conversly easy to imagine content that would be ragingly inappropriate for specific audiences. I was once told by a Lewis Carroll scholar that she would be happy to work on an Alice exhibition in a children’s museum only if we included Carroll’s photos of nude little girls. I understood it then, and still do, as fundamental disregard of the audience on her part. She didn’t get the job, BTW.

    Maybe it simply boils down to a respect for, and careful assessment of, the audience for the content in question. Robert Mapplethorp’s “fisting” photos ruffled few feather in their compelling debut at ICA in Philadelphia in 1982 (?). An appropriate audience and context. The same show landed the Director in jail in Cincinnati just a year or two later. Granted, there were a host of reasons for that debacle, many of which had little to do with the show’s content, but I have always suspected that there would have been ways to avoid the circus had a careful consideration of audience taken place. It might not even have involved removal of any “offending” images.

    By identifying the audience, respecting and listening carefully to them early on, it seems that any content can be explored. That said, more courage may be required for some things than others. Maybe that’s a good thing.

  8. Kathleen McLean Says:

    I agree, Aaron,
    I don’t think we give our visitors enough credit (I’m a broken record on this one)–if we respectfully present materials with our audiences in mind, nine times out of ten they will engage rather than rage.

    I think the real issue is our own courage, as you suggest. I am struck by all of the voices of naysayers around the edges of most exhibitions that I have found exciting or compelling or moving. If the exhibit organizers had listened to the censors, most of those exhibitions would never have seen the light of day. And it would have been our–the public’s–loss.

  9. sally Says:

    I work in an aquarium so when I think of “unexhibitable”, different animal species come to mind, as our exhibits center around live animals.

    At one point, everyone thought jellyfish were “unexhibitable” due to the delicate anatomy and relatively short lifespan, plus who would want to see them? Since Monterey Bay Aquarium opened the first jellyfish gallery, an explosion of “jelly” exhibits has occured along with advances in husbandry and tank designs. Many facilities that exhibit jellyfish now routinely culture different species for their displays, as well as trade with other facilities. Jellyfish exhibits have also captured the public’s enthusiasm and become some of the more popular exhibits at aquariums worldwide.

    To someone who works with animals, “unexhibitable” becomes a challenge to reach. We want to discover the “key” to not only keeping the animal alive, but allowing it to thrive in its captive environment. This knowledge then spills over into consveration efforts of wild populations.

    Just because you CAN exhibit it, SHOULD you? What, then is the definitaion of “unexhibitable” and whose opinions do we listen to? There are quite a number of ethical considerations when deailng with live animals. Some don’t want elephants kept in captivity, or marine mammals. However, if a responsible facility can meet and exceed all those considerations, why not?

    Great white sharks and whale sharks were once thought to be “unexhibitable”, but are now being kept in captivity for at least short periods of time. Attendance soars when Monterey Bay Aquarium is able to put a great white, albeit smaller ones, on exhibit. Why? The “unexhibitable” is an enormous curiosity – no matter what the field.

    And, for the record, I don’t work at Monterey Bay Aquarium, although they do have a jellyfish department……

  10. Camilla Mordhorst and Bente Vinge Pedersen Says:

    At Medical Museion, the medical history museum at University of Copenhagen, we are currently writing an exhibition proposal on obesity. At first glance this topic seems easy enough to come around (it is a lovely visual and material subject), but the more we think about it the more insecure we get. Can we actually make an exhibition that will be appealing and not offend people? Is obesity such an unexhibitable topic? Even though obesity is a huge problem worldwide – we talk about an obesity epidemic – it is also framed as a personal problem and a matter of individual weakness. We have thought a lot about how to solve this dilemma and our solution might be to present as a cultural history. By historitizing the subject we hope to turn the focus from the individual choise to a general story of culture and society. But still, will it neutralize the subject enough for the visitors with weight problems to feel wellcome and not patronized by the subject.

  11. Kathleen McLean Says:

    VERY interesting, Camilla and Bente. You have probably thought of this already, but it seems to me that the exhibition must be co-developed with people who identify themselves as obese (not just advisors but actual content organizers). This shifts the exhibition frame from objectification to a first-person perspective. This gets back to what Aaron was talking about regarding respect for the audience. And it adds an authenticity that cannot be provided by well-meaning people who are not themselves living the problem.

  12. Bill Watson Says:

    Camilla and Bente’s struggle with how best to develop an exhibit on obesity without neutralizing the subject enough for some visitors to feel welcome and not patronized might be seen from the opposite perspective: Will approaching the topic from a (primarily) cultural and historical perspective neutralize it too much? I would guess that an important motivation for and component of such an exhibit might be to educate people about a worldwide epidemic and answer the kinds of questions that people might a) not know to ask, or b) be uncomfortable asking.

    I have often wondered why there are not more (any?) exhibitions on any of the types of cancer. In science centers, I’ve seen the odd “smoker’s lung” on display, but I haven’t seen a systematic approach to sensitively and personally addressing causes, prevention, treatment, medical research, etc. related to cancer. I did a search a few years ago for cancer exhibitions and came up with only one: Check Your Insides Out, by the Prevent Cancer Foundation (http://www.preventcancer.org/education2c.aspx?id=118). The exhibition was developed as a part of a marketing effort and is exhibited for brief periods of time, such as at trade shows. It does present some of the issues related to cancer – better for some cancers than for others. Still, I’ve found it disappointing that the resources of the science center community haven’t been been put to use to develop an exhibition that could address this “taboo” subject in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

    So is cancer unexhibitable? It shouldn’t be. Considering that AIDS has been the topic of a successful exhibition (What About AIDS?), cancer surely must be approachable. Part of the reason that cancer is a taboo subject is that most people don’t know much about it until they are forced to (i.e., they or someone they know are diagnosed with a form of cancer). Another problem is that there is no one “cancer”. It’s a collection of conditions. But people can’t learn this or other realities of cancer (including their own risk factors and steps they can take to decrease them) if it’s not talked about in the first place. A museum exhibition could take some of the discomfort out of the equation – while leaving just enough of it to underscore the importance of the topic and educating oneself about it.

  13. Wendy Pollock Says:

    Bill’s reflections are a reminder that we sometimes approach topics like HIV/AIDS with ambivalence about our purposes, and perhaps that’s a source of some of our uncertainties about whether or how to address them. Are we presenting the facts? Raising awareness? Attempting to change attitudes? Hoping to modify behavior? And if we’re really trying to change attitudes and behavior, how can we be most effective? There’s a whole literature about attitude and behavior change in the social sciences we could look to for advice. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, whose mission is explicitly change-oriented, is an example of an institution that has been doing this, building in places where visitors can make public commitments to change.

    Even in arenas like war and peace, our approaches might be informed by greater clarity about purpose. Is a museum of memory (like the House of Terror in Budapest, which I’ve now visited) intended to prevent recurrences of epidemics of repression? And if so, what might be the most effective ways for a museum to contribute?

  14. Gretchen Jennings Says:

    I’m reading all these postings with great interest. Thanks to everyone for contributing such interesting and thoughtful insights. Sally, Camilla, Bente, and Bill, if you are willing to have your comments published in our article in the upcoming “Exhibitionist” (journal of national Association for Museum Exhibition) can you please email me at gretchenjennings@rcn.com? It would be best if you copy what you have posted here and email it to me, or tell me in your email that I can copy your posting from this blog. Thanks so much.

    Gretchen Jennings

  15. Gretchen Jennings Says:

    This is a comment on Aaron’s posting awhile ago: Your comments bring to mind the exhibits in the Holocaust
    Museum in DC that have barriers in front of them that prevent children ( at
    least until they reach a certain height) from coming upon material that
    might be frightening or disturbing. Or museums that post warning signs in
    exhibitions that are for a general audience, just to let people know of
    potentially offensive material. . Gretchen

  16. Gretchen Jennings Says:

    Thinking more about the comments from Bill, Camilla, and Bente, I would say that doing an exhibition on disease or negative aspects of health and the body is difficult and filled with challenges. The “What About AIDS” and “Women’s Health’ exhibitions did get made in the 1990′s but not without much angst and controversy. And at the National Museum of American History Museum, where I worked until last year, the decision to do an exhibition on Polio for the 50th anniversary of the March of Dimes campaign in the US against polio was met with lots of skepticism. Initial front-end studies revealed that younger visitors had never heard of it; people thought they might run into polio victims or survivors in the exhibition and catch the disease themselves! they thought it was just a depressing topic. The exhibition team made the exhibition title a question, “Whatever Happened to Polio?”, organized the exhibition around questions, made the design quite open and spare, and allowed for visitor comments. And they had lots of compelling artifacts, stories, and photos from the era when the disease was rampant. The exhibition turned out be be very well attended and extremely successful. You can find out more at http://americanhistory.si.edu/polio/

  17. Cricket Brooks Says:

    I would like to see an exhibition about the variety of social structures and reproductive strategies in the animal world. I think if it remained purely nature-focused, it might (maybe?) remain obscure and exhibitable. However, the inevitable (though somewhat odd) parallels that would be drawn to human / cultural family structures might still seem too controversial in many places.

    When I lived in Wisconsin, I was truly amazed at the number of “nuclear family” buck-doe-fawn (dad-mom-kid) deer statue groupings on people’s lawns in rural counties, even though the majority of residents there were deer hunters and very knowledgeable about deer behavior. Deer don’t congregate that way in nature – adult bucks are solitary except when breeding, and large groups of does and fawns live together. The unmistakable projecting of a human social norm onto wild animal behavior made me think that many people feel a strong emotional investment in seeing their personal reality reflected in nature without regard to the evidence.

    I don’t think an exhibition that countered that perception would be well received – what do you think?


  18. Cricket Brooks Says:

    Maybe on second thought, the exhibition I would like to see is more about what we consider “natural” and why. Or the difference between “natural” in the animal kingdom and something that we as humans would like to emulate.

    People sometimes argue that whatever behavior they find objectionable is “unnatural.” It’s often easy to find “natural” examples of that behavior, but that does little to address the objection. Likewise, arguments in favor of behaviors that are “natural” to particular animal species do not contribute much to a discussion of the moral value of that behavior among humans.

    Big (often taboo) topics of race, sexuality, gender, class, and others could be examined through the lens of how perceptions of “what’s natural” change radically depending on who’s looking at nature and where they’re looking. That would of course result in a very relativistic viewpoint.

    “There’s a heck of a lot of variety in nature” could be another starting point for the exhibition. Maybe slightly less controversial, although it ends up in the same place, which is that the concept “natural” is extremely broad, and not very helpful to resolving ethical or political issues.

  19. Matt Kirchman Says:

    Some random thoughts:

    Cricket: A very compelling idea: the projection of human social structures onto other gregarious (or not) behaviors of animals. A rookery of crows is no cocktail party. I’d love to collaborate on this idea.

    All: Regarding “un-exhibitable,” when I was in Australia, I saw many exhibitions that respected certain Aboriginal wishes to not depict deceased members of one’s family. There were no photographs, and there were instances where written quotations of deceased people were hidden from plain view and only accessible by a lift-up panel containing a written warning. It was sensitive, but not entirely un-exhibitable.

    Having seen the Lynching exhibition at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum (Baltimore), I’m convinced that no subject or presentation method is absolutely taboo. If you haven’t visited this museum, note that they offer a full-scale, detailed diorama of a lynching scene and reproduction artifacts (“souvenirs”) from a lynching event. There is an ample, albeit simple, warning at the threshold. Like K Mclean cites above, this institution gave me (the visitor) the honor of making my own decision whether to engage. I was empowered to explore the subject matter, not ashamed or embarrassed to.

    Lastly,I think idea-based exhibits (versus object-based exhibits) are sometimes un-exhibitable… not due to sensitivity, but rather due to the fact that ideas are sometimes complex and intangible and have little physical evidence. In short, maybe some ideas just doesn’t make for good exhibits!!! Have you ever seen an exhibit of salmon in an aquarium and the main interpretive idea is “migration?” I can’t help but think: How do farm-raised fish, exhibited within the confines of a tank, communicate anadramous migration??!! In this case, the subject is truly un-exhibitable and must be replicated, simulated or interpreted beyond what is directly observable. Not a good exhibit technique, in my experience.

  20. Mary Anna Murphy Says:

    One exhibit comes to mind:
    Shrunken heads. In and of themselves, once you get over the gross factor and the fact that they’re mummified human remains, some are quite lovely, decorated with irridescent scarab beetles in their hair. The story of how they came to be a part of the Jivaro culture (as well as others), how they’re made and why is fascinating. As well as the story of the trade in fake shrunken heads. I’m not an expert, but have reviewed a collection, now disbursed upon the death of the collector, and envision a jewel-like small exhibit focusing on the tribe, trade and traditions with only a couple of heads.

  21. Nina Simon Says:

    Ed Mooney, director of exhibits at the National Canal Museum, recently sent me this article about the “unexhibitable” in the world of video game design. The article makes distinctions between anonymous shooting games (a leading, generally accepted game genre) and those that put you in the shoes of specific historic violent incidents like Columbine, the Holocaust, and the JFK assassination (attacked as morally reprehensible).

    I thought this was interesting in the context of how the role the visitor plays in the exhibit/game affects its “exhibitability.” It’s not just content that matters, it’s the way visitors are invited to engage. In the example of lynching given above, I wonder which visitor roles are considered respectful and appropriate (i.e. watching, consuming) and which would be considered wildly inappropriate (like putting nooses around fellow visitors’ necks).

  22. Gretchen Jennings Says:

    Thanks, Nina, we are just putting together the article based on all the responses we’ve received. This adds a new dimension. Gretchen