Smithsonian Perspectives

The modern museum trend toward interpretive exhibitions presents both challenges and opportunities

Last month in this column I stated that the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian is coping well with the three major challenges that the whole Institution faces in this era: enhancing private fundraising, dealing with controversial interpretive exhibits and providing access to its collections by electronic means. Fundraising was last month's topic. I turn here to interpretive exhibits.

In times past, American Indian displays were usually grouped either by type, origin and age, or solely on the basis of esthetics. This was satisfactory for knowledgeable visitors; others, however, found such displays inadequate because no context was provided to explain the significance of the objects. This led to the placing of artifacts in a setting that gave broader meaning to the assemblage. For example, a diorama might present an American Indian structure with mannequins carrying out typical activities, using objects previously presented without context. The arrangements were organized from the perspective of curators, and rarely, if ever, of the people who made the pieces.

The National Museum of the American Indian has gone much further in its initial set of exhibitions in the Custom House in New York City, looking instead at objects and history from an Indian point of view. For instance, in one exhibition, 300 pieces selected by members of different Indian tribes are presented. In labels, recordings, photographs and so forth, the selectors tell why they chose the object and its significance in the culture of the tribe. The exhibition is controversial.

Some reviewers are excited about this new way of trying to understand American Indian culture, while others are confused by the juxtaposition, in another part of the exhibition, of Indian and non-Indian interpretations of the same objects or events. This new way of presenting objects and history is in the modern tradition of museum exhibitions. In the past few decades, more and more museums — of science, history and the arts — have tried to provide a framework for their exhibitions that gives context and interpretation. Various Smithsonian museums are similarly engaged.

One interesting example is the new installation of the First Ladies' gowns at the National Museum of American History. For generations, Americans made the pilgrimage to view the gowns, draped on mannequins grouped by period but with little commentary. It was one of our most popular displays. And then when it became necessary to restore many of the gowns, the decision was made to create an installation that described the many roles of the First Lady throughout our history. Most of our visitors see the interpretation as value-added. The gowns are now beautifully restored, but there's also the chance to understand the very demanding job we ask First Ladies to take on.

In my view, interpretation has an important role to play in a national museum involved in education as well as in the simple display of objects. Most visitors seem to like interpretive exhibitions when they are done well. Such excellence often involves taking a point of view or at least providing an expert perspective. In fact, we are sometimes open to criticism when we fail to provide an interpretation. A recent exhibition on World War II journalists evoked the plea from a reviewer for "some principle of unity other than that these featured thirty-two were in some way connected with the coverage of WWII."

Sometimes, interpretive exhibitions create substantial controversy. This is not necessarily a bad thing — the public's attention can be gripped by sharp disagreement. But controversy can also be destructive to learning and to perceptions of a museum's integrity.

When is an interpretive exhibition a candidate for controversy? And how concerned should we be about it?

We at the Smithsonian are seeking to understand when controversy is productive, when destructive, and how to assure that our integrity and reputation for balance and fairness do not suffer. Guidelines are emerging concerning the influence that the Institution's Secretary and museum directors properly exert on the curators' choice and design of exhibitions; the processes for review and intervention; the extent to which historical exhibitions should speak within the context of the time; the ways to assure that our audiences feel that their own ideas are being respected; and similar questions. I shall explore these guidelines in the future.

Our efforts have gained urgency because of criticisms of some past exhibitions. But one planned for the Enola Gay has drawn particular attention, amounting to a furor. As I stated in my Installation address in September: "Our first script for the exhibition was deficient. Too much of the context for the use of atomic bombs was taken for granted. In this and other ways, the proposed exhibition was out of balance. This is being remedied as we consult with additional historians and interest groups. I believe that our final product will properly present the record of what happened and will be the basis for justified national pride in the sacrifices of our veterans, the technical proficiency of our scientists, and the productivity of our industries."

It is important that the deficiencies have been corrected. It is even more important that we learn from our mistakes by amending our processes of review and creating guidelines for curators that assure balance in presentation.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.