18 May 2007

Public History Controversy: An Obligation?

An interesting idea was brought to the fore in our public history class on March 7th. It was suggested (by whom I cannot remember) that when faced with two or more choices, people inevitably choose the easiest of the options. The example given was the choice between curating two museum exhibits: one that deals with a touchy issue, such as the racialized colonization of African peoples (as in the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit displayed at the ROM in the very early 1990s) or a less politically-charged dinosaur exhibit. The assumption is that the latter would be the choice of most people.

I question this assumption. Is it true that people always choose the easy route? I know from personal experience (or rather, from my wife telling me) that I often choose to do things the hard way. So I don’t buy the argument that humans are, by default, lazy (which is what this argument implies).

I do wonder, though, if people working in public realms like museums must, for pragmatic reasons, choose less difficult subject matter. Actually, we as a class know of a at least one example of this. We visited a local London museum (which will go unnamed) earlier this year. The curator told us that there are certain artefacts in that museum’s collection that s/he will never display because s/he is certain that such an exhibition will result in a politically-charged headache for her/him and her/his institution, as well as for the larger body to which the museum is attached.

So yes, public historians do sometimes take the easier choice when confronted with controversial issues.

But that sucks, doesn’t it? I mean, these people have the opportunity – some might even say the responsibility – to engage the public in important debates. Someone else in that March 7th class also suggested that we as public historians exist for the very purpose of poking the sleeping giant. Good point. Yet, in our short tenure as fledgling public historians we have already witnessed at least one such a figure who balks at this opportunity.

I do not want to back down from making meaningful change in the world. I admit, however, that it scares me. I mean, what if I mess up and end up a Jeanne Cannizzo, or better yet, given my career objectives, the McKenna Brothers? But if I end up a demon in the public’s eyes, I may, as Prof. MacEachern kept trying to get us to argue throughout the year, be more successful than my counterparts who are not so scandalous. After all, if I get people talking about the subject I present, doesn’t that make my public history venture a success?

Look at Jack Granatstein. He’s practically created an art form of making outlandish claims in the press, more often than not sparking the ire of the public, often to the benefit of society. I think, and this is pure speculation, that Dr. Granatstein says some of the things he does to produce the exact opposite effect of what it is he appears to be claiming. Take for example his assertion that the Canadian War Museum could solve its financial woes by selling Hitler’s car. It made a lot of people upset, and caused quite a stir in the media.

This is exactly my point: he got peoples’ attention, and their butts (and minds) followed, right up the steps and through the front doors of the museum, of which he was the director. And who knows, since what he was trying to do was raise money for the ailing museum, he may have prompted some people, who may otherwise not have, to donate to the museum.

I am not suggesting that everyone adopt this approach. But controversy can sometimes be the best thing for you. And me. And your neighbour. Even if we can’t see it right away.


Uptown Urbanist said...

Admittedly a very old post here, but it popped up when I typed in "public history controversy." No, I don't think the average curator would choose the "easy" way out; most curators are attracted to the profession because they want to think, to push limits, to be interested in their work. There are certainly external pressures at work, but in most cases the curator isn't the one who is being directly pressured (unless the curator IS the director or answers directly to the board, which is sometimes the case). All that said, I think most public historians often do play it too safe, and too many exhibits step away from attacking real problems head on. I certainly think public history as tool of change is something to be embraced. I know that many, although not all, of my curator friends agree. Until we're free from the shackles of nonprofit status, though, or are lucky enough to be able work for or be involved with an organization that at its upper-most levels is willing to take on those risks, the curatorial vision only goes so far.

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