“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” ― Thomas Paine, Rights of Man
Exhibitions are active agents in the construction of knowledge. Decisions about what to include and what to exclude, what is valued and what is not, who is ascribing value, the means of presentation, space, design, language, and so on, are critical as they all lead to presentational styles which influence the public’s perception in many ways.
Illustration Collage: Billy Renkl
In addition, the very act of presentation is primarily interpretive. In interpreting objects and themes, exhibitions create new worlds which are usually perceived by visitors as ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ because of the museum’s status and cultural authority. Even when they make claims to scientific objectivity and precision, exhibitions inevitably reflect the beliefs, assumptions and ethical values of the persons making the decisions. In this way they inevitably promote some truths at the expense of others. This is usually not understood by visitors as information presented in museums is normally perceived as accurate and true.
Two decades ago, Vogel urged museum professionals to: “inform the public that what it sees is … material filtered through the tastes, interests, politics, and state of knowledge of particular presenters at a particular moment in time’ and to ‘allow the public to know that [the museum] is … atightly focused lens that shows the visitor a particular point of view’ [emphasis added].
As a manifestation of professional self-consciousness and sensitivity to the public, there has lately been a trend for ‘signing’ exhibitions. This usually involves a visible statement by the exhibition curators that the content presented represents their own thoughts and beliefs, and that it is as accurate and true as current state-of-the-art knowledge of the subject allows. Whether one agrees with this practice or not, this may be seen as a sign of openness which encourages the public to reflect on the difference between the ‘accuracy’, or the ‘honesty’ of what is presented. Accuracy is about presenting up-to-date information, whereas honesty refers to the approach endorsed in presenting that information to the public.
EVE believes that the concept of honesty may play a key part in resolving the tensions and ethical dilemmas involved in all exhibition work. In the text that follows I will try to address this issue and examine what it may entail for both museums and the visiting public.
Decisions about exhibition contents bring about a whole set of crucial questions which may be divided into two groups. The first set of questions revolves around the need to provide content with context: How to approach the subject at hand? What objects or themes to include, and why? What information to choose for labelling, and why? Whose voice is it to be heard? How much room is there for alternative voices or interpretations? And so on and so forth.
The second set of questions leads us to the heart of the ethics discussion, especially if the content in question qualifies as ‘sensitive’. For example: Shall we display the dead? And if yes, which is the best practice? Are we allowed to display objects of cultural or sacred significance for another culture as mere curios? Do we tell visitors the whole story behind collections that ended up in our museum in dubious or contested ways?
Clearly, these are complex issues which cannot be dealt with in detail in the confined space of this post, so we will go further in coming articles that we want to share with you.
Resource: Andromache Gazi – Department of Communication, Media and Culture, Panteion University, Greece
Main Photo and Social Networks Image: Zhang Huan