Histolircal exhibits are an important part of a museum’s collection, and this special section of the Public Historian magazine is dedicated to reviewing the works of museums in the United States and abroad. The Public Historian features reviews of current exhibits, performances, and historical built environments. It includes information about the effectiveness of museum exhibits, including their accuracy, setting and presentation, and overall design. Other issues include comparative essays, which compare two or more museums side-by-side.
While museum exhibits transmit historical knowledge, they are also a source of controversial information that can stir passionate debate. As the sole witnesses to tragic events, historical exhibits often contain a significant interpretive element, implying judgments about cause and effect. It is counterproductive to suppress material that could generate polarized debate, since it prevents rational discussion of the subject matter. In addition, censorship of controversial materials will only further divide the public and prevent the transmission of history.
Curators should be aware of competing viewpoints before introducing controversial works into the collection. The National Council on Public History recommends that museums do not suppress controversial material in their exhibits. In fact, some museums have suppressed historical works that triggered strong societal backlash. Museums should not be afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom and acknowledge competing points of view. There are many examples of controversial exhibits that have prompted societal backlash.
Curator Fath Davis Ruffins argues that “a good exhibition has a physical form” that is an interpretive representation of the past. A good exhibition is a mixture of visual poetry and well-researched history. It can spark curiosity and expand understanding. A well-curated exhibition will allow viewers to imagine themselves living in a particular time period through the juxtaposition of objects and graphics. People did not live in a vacuum and their actions and decisions affected many people, both in their own communities and beyond them.