One of my favorite readings that has stuck with me throughout my graduate program was for the Introduction to Museum Education class: The Unexhibitable: A Conversation, by Gretchen Jennings and Maureen McConnell.
It poses the question: What, if anything is “unexhibitable”?
We have gone to some very provocative museums– NMAAHC, The United States Holocaust Museum, The Museum of the American Indian– but the common thread between all of them seems to be that almost nothing is unexhibitable, if framed the in the right way for the correct audiences; which mirrors Jennings and McConnell’s conclusions in their article.
NMAAHC addresses difficult topics such as slavery, the abuse that many African Americans received, slave ships, the violence of the Civil Rights Movement, all, seemingly, with ease. Much of the content is tailored to fit the story that they are telling and any portions that might be more difficult for a sensitive, or younger audiences are either regulated to a side gallery, slightly off the beaten path, or marked with a red highlight that allows the option to read the text or not.
The Museum of the American Indian has a slightly different difficult topic for their exhibitions– do they approach the topic through the eyes of Americans? the US government? Of Native peoples? Finding that balance seems to be one of the primary goals of their exhibitions in order to balance the difficult subjects that their visitors come into the museum having some background knowledge of (even if it is typically wrong, or skewed by media). NMAI has the unique problem of actually having artifacts that they cannot display– both ethically and because of the terms of NAGPRA– which could cause potential problems if something falls into that grey area, or is not interpreted correctly. Bones are an obvious unexhibitable object but other ceremonial artifacts might not be as clear.
The United States Holocaust Museum has been tasked to present even more difficult topics– those of death, suffering, and betrayal. While I have never gone through the permanent exhibit, Daniel’s Story–the child and family version– has stuck with me for the 12 years since I first saw it. It touches on all of the difficult topics of the Holocaust in a way that doesn’t reduce the issues, but presents them in a more approachable way that children–their primary audience– can understand. I feel like, if they can create an exhibit that accurately covers the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that children can comprehend, then anything is possible!