During the early days of The Iraq War Donald Rumsfeld famously quipped that, “Freedom is untidy”, and that “free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things”. While that was arguably an unsatisfactory response to the lawlessness and looting that occurred during the early days of the U.S. presence in Iraq, the broader principle stands. The same freedom that allows us to act nobly and do the right thing also allows us to behave in ways that are most reprehensible.
In a broader societal context, the notion of right and wrong gets a little trickier. The process of differentiating between the two (and navigating those differences appropriately) often takes the form of very public and very heated debates. Stakeholders with competing values lobby for the last word; interest groups advocate for actions they insist are “right”.
It’s not uncommon to find museums playing a role in these debates. Museums, by their nature, have an aura of objectivity and authority. We trust them to get the story right. We view them to a large extent as educational. In that regard the narratives they present go a long way toward shaping public perceptions. Museums have served to normalize the avant-garde. They have heightened awareness of issues by telling stories that often fall outside of traditional narratives. They shed light on episodes that many would just as soon forget.
Considering this role as arbiter and explainer of our collective heritage, it’s perhaps surprising when one museum asks the question “What if we didn’t tell you what to think?” Well, that’s exactly the question the Ohio Historical Center has asked in their newest exhibit Controversy: Pieces You Don’t Normally See.
This exhibit is comprised of select objects from the Ohio Historical Society’s permanent collection, all displayed with a minimum amount of interpretation. The objects include the electric chair from the old Ohio Penitentiary, a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, a sheepskin condom, a crib-bed cage that restrained patients at a state mental institution and a thumb mitt once used to prevent children from sucking their thumbs.
The premise here is that objects (in the sense that they’re inanimate) are essentially neutral. The electric chair for instance, is simply wood, leather, and iron. In and of itself it presents neither message nor meaning. It is the viewer that brings the meaning and it is the intent of the exhibition that we do just that. It’s a refreshing change of pace; brave in its way, and one that is particularly effective in this instance.
Each item in Controversy is presented in relative isolation. The scant expository materials provided reside on small placards positioned unobtrusively to the side. This forces the viewer to respond first and foremost to the object itself. It also prohibits viewers from simultaneously looking at and reading about the object. Visitors literally have to turn their back on the objects in order to learn about them. This is a small detail, but one that’s critical. It reinforces the proposition that the experience is intended to be with the object, not the explanation.
The objects themselves take on a sculptural quality. Presented against a neutral background and distanced from the clamor of context, they invite us to consider materials as well as meaning. Who assembled them, how they were made, and how they came to be are questions careful viewers will likely ask. It’s admittedly jarring to contemplate the rough-hewn, hand-made quality these objects possess. In an age when advanced product design and near flawless manufacturing techniques imbue our everyday objects with an aura of self-evident perfection, this human touch comes as something of a surprise. This is especially true when we consider the intent of the items on display.
These items also present a very human view of our past. History is often viewed through a lens trained on the grand scale; great battles, great buildings, great voyages, and great achievements. Controversy, for all the larger themes it hints at, presents a series of items that are very much individual in scale. That we could sit in, wear, operate, or be restrained by any of the items on display personalizes history in a way that other tellings can’t.
Burt Logan, Executive Director of the Ohio Historical Society states, “It’s important to find a safe space to explore controversial subjects. We think this is one of the attributes of this exhibit, to generate conversations about complex issues in Ohio’s history”. In the exhibit’s final room, viewers are invited to do just that. Here visitors can review materials that help contextualize the objects and also share their own thoughts and feelings. It’s a simple, respectful space, and so far removed from the rancor of our current political and cultural wars that one wonders if perhaps we can learn more from museums than just history.
Controversy: Pieces You Don’t Normally See is on view at the Ohio Historical Center, April 1 – November 20, 2011. In conjunction with the exhibit, The Ohio Historical Society will be offering a series of Community Conversations to encourage open discussions of topics related to Controversy. The first program, “Why an Exhibit on Controversy?,” will be Thursday, April 14 at 7 p.m., in the center’s Arthur C. Johnson Auditorium.
Photo Credit: Photo of the electric chair from the old Ohio Penitentiary courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society