The conclusion of a seven-part series on European American/Native American War Artifacts and the Ethics of Display by Zabelle Stodola, professor of literature and cultural studies at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. The series begins here.
Part 7: “Showing Basic Human Decency”
The Minnesota Historical Society is doing its part in admitting past cultural insensitivities, conversing with descendants of natives and non-natives affected by historical wrongs, fostering inclusiveness, and committing to tell “the whole story, even the ugly,” as Steve Elliott, executive director of the MHS, said recently.[i]
But telling the whole story does not necessarily mean displaying everything. Patricia Cohen, author of a recent New York Times story on the controversy surrounding what to exhibit at the September 11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero, puts it succinctly, “Everyone agrees that it is the museum’s job to tell the truth. The question, though, is how much truth.”[ii] Sensitive items may be held and made available for research, but not placed for all to see. The Blue Earth County Historical Society is also weighing the pros and cons of putting the purported scaffold beam on show even if it is authenticated.
I find it hard to believe that an organization’s mindful decision not to display inflammatory objects amounts to censorship. Entire collections are always pre-selected by the donors and/or the beneficiaries; exhibits more so. Ironically, for that reason, even if a museum showed all of its holdings on a specific subject, that grouping would still be biased and prejudicial. At the very least it would be incomplete. Therefore, when an organization withholds some items from open display, it’s not necessarily pandering to political correctness as some detractors claim.[iii] It’s showing basic human decency.
A complete copy of this seven-part series is available in PDF form here: Zabelle Stodola Clubs Hatchets Knives and Beams the Ethics of Display
Notes to Part 7
[i] Quoted in Scott, “The No-Win War.”
[ii] See Patricia Cohen, “At 9/11 Museum, Talking Through an Identity Crisis,” New York Times (3 June 2012), 1, 20-21.
[iii] Incidentally, although I use the term “political correctness” here because that’s what many skeptics use, I loathe the phrase for its negative connotations. I much prefer “cultural sensitivity” since it better reflects the quality of genuine social empathy.