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Teaching in the Curatorial Wake

We all tackle controversial art, objects, or subjects at our institutions, intentionally or unintentionally. In fact, entire exhibits have the potential to bring an institution to a screeching halt. As a curator, I may select the topic for the exhibit, devise an organizing principle, write labels that clearly explain to the visitor why we choose to exhibit these objects, and why they should pay attention to the objects and the subject. My job is more or less done when the exhibit opens.

But you know how human beings are. They see something that offends them, and they clutch. They stop thinking at precisely the moment they ought to begin thinking, when they ought to be curious. As the curator who selected the objects and wrote the labels, I am now helpless to change that visitor’s thinking. You, however, are not. Docents have the ability to create a positive experience for museum visitors out of a potentially negative one. Your job is to help the visitors find a way to “shed” their skin and try on someone else’s. You lead them into the lives of the historical actors, and you can help them view the past on its own terms, in its own time and context. You can help them be the artist, scientist, or historian.

There are two types of reactions for which you need to watch. The emotional outburst is easy to spot and you should be able to use one of the techniques discussed ahead to deal with it. The sUent reaction is much more difficult to catch, but equally important to address — I call it “the clutch.” Sometimes, visitors wiU avert their eyes or turn their heads away from something that upsets them. Sometimes, they will clutch at their throats, chests, or clothing. When you notice that, it is your clue to discuss that particular object further. Do not put the uncomfortable visitor on the spot. Simply stop your group and say, “Let’s talk about this object for a minute.” If you are lucky, the offended person may open up, to the benefit of all.

It helps to remind visitors, particularly in history and science museums, that the past is not all sweetness and light, and that our understanding of science is not immutable. Museums talk about bad things, difficult times, new theories, and tough topics precisely because they must. Museums help ensure that the past is not forgotten, that the public learns new theories, and that they broaden their horizons.

One of your jobs is to relate the tough topic to the visitor’s experiences. Sometimes, that work is done for you. At the Capital Children’s Museum in Washington, DC, an exhibit about the Holocaust called “Remember the Children” used a simple device to help young visitors comprehend the numbers of children who had perished. A huge wall case filled to the top with one million ping pong balls gave the children a sense of the vastness of one million. It was an effective device for adult visitors, too. If the curatorial staff has not done this type of thing for you, find your own examples to help visitors relate their life experience to the topici being presented. We all understand an abstract concept better if we can relate it to a concrete one or to similar experience in our own lives.

Humor can help take the edge off You must use it carefully, however, and with tact and discretion. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, used humor to defuse potential controversy in an exhibit about contraception entitled “Taking Precautions.” The exhibit opens with a compilation of sex education films from the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s, that through their absurdity and dated-ness, open the visitor’s mind to an otherwise taboo topic. A reviewer commented about this exhibit: “It’s just right; humour mediates embarrassment and opens a path for visitors to talk about the topic.” Indeed, humor was designed into the exhibit. Megan Hicks, one of the exhibit’s curators, explained that among the aims of the exhibition! was “to share the jokes on the subject” of birth control. “It would have been easy for this exhibition to have been just an array of gizmos and gadgets in glass cases. Instead, it became a human look at an important but difficult topic.” Though it may be natural for visitors to joke about certain tough topics, it helps if the museum and staff can direct that joking to some purpose — like opening the visitor’s mind to the subject. Many members of the general public mistakenly equate public exhibition with approbation. The reaction to a Ku Klux Klan robe with indisputable ties to South Dakota is typical. “Why do you choose to glorify this dark chapter in history?” Docents can help visitors see that history’s dark moments need to be understood, too. The Klan robe presented an opportunity to explain the Klan’s enmity toward Catholics, Jews, and foreigners, as well as Blacks. This would be a good instance in which restating the information on the label might help visitors to get over the shock of seeing a Klan robe in such a surprising place.

Museums sometimes try to be subtle; however, unstated points and subtle humor (or irony) are usually lost on the visitor. A poster exhibit developed by the National Archives presented documentary evidence of the Holocaust. In its first edition, the last document was a transcript of a speech by Heinrich Himmler saying in part, “… this glorious chapter of German history, unknown and perhaps never to be known …” The exhibit’s curators believed that the presence of the document in the National Archives of the United States belied Himmler’s statement — and of course it did. However, the new edition of the exhibit states flat out that Himmler was wrong— and it showed photographs of survivors to prove it. It is not enough to assume that visitors will infer the point. You must state it. Be direct.

Museums must take a point of view and present it without equivocation. In 1987, the National Archives opened its constitutional bicentennial exhibit, “The American Experiment: Living with the Constitution.” Among the topics discussed were the war powers of the President. Under this section the Archives looked at the relocation of citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. The centerpiece of this section was a painfully ironic 1943 government film that glossed over the reasons for, and effects of, the relocation and described the internees as something akin to happy kibutzniks, out to “make the desert bloom.”

The staff of the National Archives did not feel they needed to say more. They believed that the irony of the film would be obvious to all. It was not. People on guided tours were offered the irony, while self-guided visitors were not. Docents asked, “Does this film sound like propaganda to you, or do you think the U.S. Government believed what it was saying here?” Unfortunately, the vast majority of visitors to the National Archives are self-guided. So after complaints and a threat of Congressional action, Archives staff strengthened the label and pointed out what visitors had missed. As docents, you can do that, too.

If the curators have not done it for you already, you must also show the visitor how the curators made their interpretation. History museums, for instance, have done little to disclose the historical method. You can help visitors understand how historians do their work and how they reach the conclusions that your museum is presenting to the visitors. Art museums, likewise, often do not let visitors know why they value certain works of art. The average visitor may have difficulty evaluating modern art, for instance. You are the link between the museum curators and the visitor. You can explain to visitors why the museum considers a work of art worthy to exhibit, or you can give visitors the tools to evaluate the work of art themselves. Encourage your visitors to look at the evidence or evaluation criteria with a critical eye. Encourage them to disagree with the museum’s conclusions.

If you have done all you can to help the visitor understand the museum’s point-of-view about a controversial topic, and still the visitor is upset or hostile, then you need to allow the visitor to vent his feelings. In some museums, staff provide a variety of means for the visitors to “talk back.” The Chicago Children’s Museum, for example, provides talk back boards, logs, or journals for visitors to express their feelings. The talk back boards extend the interpretation of the exhibit onto another plane — visitor comments add points-of-view and provoke more thought or response on the part of the visitors. If your museum does not offer such types of feedback mechanisms, then the visitor should be offered paper, pencil, and a quiet place to sit, think, and write a response to the museum. Exhibit teams do want to hear negative comments, since such comments can lead to a strengthened exhibit. If labels, for instance, are not specific or useful, changes in the current exhibit can be made. Also, exhibit teams take previous comments into consideration when planning new exhibits. If docents don’t meet regularly with the exhibit planning teams, they should find a way to do so. As front-liners working with visitors, you are in the best position to know which exhibit techniques are working, and which are not. In institutions that do not use exhibit evaluation, exhibit teams often act on what they believe is best current professional practice. and they usually have limited front- line experience with visitors. You have valuable information for the exhibit teams that you should share. When dealing with tough topics, your information about visitor reactions can help your institution avoid needless negative press and controversy, and lead to a better learning experience for visitors.

Claudia J. Nicholson is Curator of Collections for the South Dakota State Historical Society located in Pierre, South Dakota. She received her B.A. in history from Mary Washington College and an M.A. in History Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Ms. Nicholson contributed a previous article The Docent Educator (Spring 1996), entitled “Just a Little Respect.”

Nicholson, Claudia J. “Teaching in the Curatorial Wake,” The Docent Educator 6.3 (Spring 1997): 8-10.


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