Friday, 13 August 2010

Do museums ALWAYS need to be objective?

I’ve been mulling this over in my head for a few days. Do museums always need to be objective? I’m not suggesting that museums do not have the responsibility to show different perspectives. There is no one historical truth and it’s important to show how different people/groups perceive the same event or experience.

What I’m talking about is if there is something that 99.9% of intelligent, educated people believe and there are one or two lone objectors out there (and, yes, I know I already have a built in bias), is it necessary to give space to the one or two objectors? And, if you do give space, do you have to give equal space? If you do present this alternate position, can you editorialize (for example, say why this position has been discredited)? Or can you just completely ignore it and not include it at all? I guess what I’m actually asking is can you just sometimes ignore the kooks no matter how loudly and often they repeat their point of view?

I work in a history museum but I started thinking about this while reading Unscientific America, a book that looks at how scientific illiteracy is hurting American society. The book looks at ways to bring scientists and the general public together. One chapter deals with the media and science. The media sees its role as an objective purveyor which has to show both sides of an issue (and showing “both” sides isn’t a bad way to increase debate and viewership, either). When the media presents a scientific story, they usually bring in someone who can speak to both sides of the issue. But this can distort the story if 99.9% of scientists are on one side and 0.1% are on the other. When both sides get similar and equal air time, it looks to the general public that both sides are weighed equally and that both points of view are equally valid alternatives. Sometimes there are no shades of grey – just black and white.

So that started me thinking about museums. Do we sometimes try so hard to show that we’re objective and to show both sides of the story (even when sometimes there really is just one side of a story), that we only confuse the issue to our visitors? Do not museums sometimes have the responsibility to get off the fence and take a side?

Or do our visitors just want the facts, stories, objects and all of the possible alternatives and have the option of making up their own mind? Certainly, no one wants to visit a museum and only get the curator’s opinions. And history has shown us that there are occasions when 99% of people believe something and it isn’t true.

But human nature has also shown us that if you give people an alternate solution (no matter how unsupported it may be), there will be many people who will believe and give credence to that other story. And do we try so hard not to offend anyone or any group, that we create presentations and exhibits that are too wishy-washy? And nothing is more difficult than to un-teach incorrect information.

I would love to hear your opinions. If you’re a museum visitor, what would you like? If you work in museums, have you faced this same dilemma?

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