Treasure tests

The Politics of Display

June 19, 1998

Surprisingly, given their high public profile, museums and their exhibition displays have only recently become the subject of serious critical discussion in books. Though interest has been a long time coming, publications are now appearing in significant numbers. Typically, they are multi-authored, with the large majority of contributors coming from higher education rather than from museums. This is interesting in itself: there is no lack of vigorous discussion between staff in museums but their views rarely find their way into print. In this particular book, which concentrates on science displays, only two of the 11 authors work in museums, both of whom run small, academically inclined institutions which allow them a good degree of independence.

The text on the back cover of the book asks "Why have museums become political battle grounds?" Though this statement is presumably made to stimulate sales and undoubtedly overstates the position, there can be no doubt that some recent science and ethnography displays have attracted controversy. Perhaps it is not surprising that it is these subject areas which have aroused public discussion, rather than treatments of ancient civilisations, the more so as museums have moved from relatively straightforward presentations of historical objects to put emphasis on texts which accompany them.

Indeed, museums recently have dealt with topics of contemporary interest and some have allied themselves to the "Public understanding of science movement". However it would be wrong to think that science museums have ignored such issues in the past. The government-appointed Bell committee, concerned with the future of the Science Museum, recommended in 1911 that it should serve those who "wish to obtain from the collections information regarding recent advances in science or in industries". Though earlier presentations of contemporary topics did not arouse controversy, some later ones did. Displays on the fluoridisation of drinking water and on nuclear power attracted significant criticism from pressure groups some 20 years ago.

The most recent causes celebres, however, have been two exhibits which were developed (only conceptually in one of the cases) by museums in Washington's Smithsonian Institution, the federally funded museum service in the United States. The sagas of these are masterfully presented in the volume by Thomas Gieryn, a professor of sociology at the University of Indiana. "The Crossroads: the End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War" never came to fruition. It was intended to be an exhibit on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the focus of which was to have been the aircraft which was involved, the Enola Gay. The way in which this object would have been contextualised caused a vitriolic response from veterans' groups, senators and congressmen, the major contentious issue being estimates of the effect the bomb had on the shortening of the war with Japan and the resultant saving of American servicemen's lives. The display in its proposed form was abandoned, the director of the National Air and Space Museum departed and a sparse presentation showing the fuselage of the Enola Gay with a neutered text was all that survived. About a year earlier, "Science in American Life" had opened at the National Museum of American History, the intention of this expensive exhibition being particular interactions between science and American society from the 1860s onwards.

The distress on this occasion was caused to the American Chemical Society, the sponsor. One scientific commentator saw the exhibition as being "sickened with the same anti-science virus that afflicts academic science studies". Others accused the originators of the exhibition as being excessively politically correct; The Daily Telegraph judged "the History Museum's permanent exhibits coruscate with ideological distortions". The problem seems to have been that the team which developed the exhibition did not wish to adopt either of the traditional strategies, that of straightforwardly setting out objects with little more than technical descriptions, or taking the opportunity to describe the triumphant march of scientific progress and its benefits to mankind. Critics of both the Enola Gay plans and "Science in American Life" exhibition claimed that "balance" was missing.

Both sets of curators stated that balance was what they set out to achieve. What resulted in both cases was polarisation of attitude, stalemate and bad relationships.

Some presentations, being of their time, are initially acceptable but later cause offence. This is particularly true of an exhibition "Races of Mankind" which opened in the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, in 1933 (though it had been conceived much earlier). The issues arising from changing attitudes are considered by Tracy Lang Teslow. The concept was a curious hybrid, part sculptural "art", part physical anthropology. Malvina Hoffman had been commissioned to produce 101 life-size bronze statues representing what were considered to be the principal human racial types.

Scarcely surprisingly, 1930s attitudes and prejudices pervaded the whole exercise, even though Hoffman went to great lengths to produce accurate representations. But the figures had to be doing something and they had to be set out in some sequence. The undernourished Tamil was depicted busily climbing a palm tree, while Nordic man (based on a body-builder from Brooklyn) languidly flexed his muscles in a nude pose. The juxtaposition of figures indicated a clear hierarchy based on race: the central figures were European or North American while peripheral to these were races from Asia, Africa and Oceania displayed in what was termed "avenues of primitive man".

Remarkably, the arrangement lasted for some 30 years, though by that time it was condemned as "white racist pseudo-anthropology". Still on display today, the figures are set out as mere decorative objects, displaying physical and cultural diversity but not typology. The whole exercise now seems almost unimaginable, a reminder that today's exhibitions will look equally antiquated at the end of a similar time interval.

Nearly all science museums are heavily didactic. In America and increasingly elsewhere, the term refers to centres where scientific principles are explained by means of interactive devices; usually there are no collections of historically significant objects. Jim Bennett, of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, asks the question "Can science museums take history seriously?" He points out, quite correctly, that science museums do not have to have restricted aspirations; collections can be used to illuminate science education, training, entertainment, professional practice, research, and so on. He then goes on to describe exhibitions at the Whipple Museum in Cambridge in which he made points of such kinds to a general audience. The "Empires of Physics" exhibition dealt with the difficult subject of late 19th-century science in two contrasting ways: the private world of the experimental physicist in the Cavendish Laboratory and the public world of the 1881 Paris Electrical Exhibition.

One provided insights into the other. Undoubtedly Bennett's exhibitions have been innovative and do not patronise the general public for whom they were produced. There is a feeling, however, that his is a voice crying in the wilderness in a world which is indifferent to such thoughtfulness.

These essays, including that by the editor, Sharon Macdonald (who recounts with great care in "Supermarket science?": the development of "Food for Thought" at the Science Museum, London) should be consulted by those concerned with the value and use of museums of science. A history of such institutions worthy of its subject, has yet to be written. This work will provide a valuable series of sources when the task is tackled.

R. G. W. Anderson is director, British Museum.

The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture

Editor - Sharon Macdonald
ISBN - 0 415 15326 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £17.99
Pages - 246

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