The Art of Selecting Controversial Exhibits

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In a museum, the selection of historical exhibits is a critical process in the transmission of historical knowledge. Visitors to such exhibits are typically family groups, often the only witnesses to tragic events. The process of selecting exhibits, however, also involves judgment about the cause and effect of a particular event. This controversy often leads to healthy discussion and debate about the content of exhibits. The suppression of controversial material would serve the opposite of the intended goal.

Creative visual storytelling is a key aspect of any good exhibition. These collections are much more than a wall full of historical objects. These pieces evoke curiosity and widen the audience’s understanding of historical concepts. For example, the juxtaposition of objects and graphics helps viewers place themselves in a specific time and place. This is important because people of the past often did not live in isolation. Their actions impacted those in their community and those far away.

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle traces American history from the Revolutionary War to present and focuses on the bloody campaigns against Native Americans. The exhibit lets visitors stroll through the exhibit and zoom in on individual images. Other panels feature relevant artwork, reflections by historians, and more. This is a wonderful interactive experience that allows visitors to learn a great deal about the history of this country. However, it may be difficult to experience in person, especially if you’re a person with a sensitivity towards history.

Recent social and economic trends have led to a proliferation of historical exhibits in the United States. A growing number of local heritage institutions and national dialogues around identity have contributed to the rise of these exhibits. Yet, most scholarship on the topic of historical exhibition has focused on museum-like exhibits in professionally-run museums. This article explores the various ways in which this exhibition medium emerges in museums. The purpose of this article is to encourage future historians to take the same approach to the field.