Reflections on Museums 3: Telling the Stories of Troubled Pasts

This is the third of four posts from 2010 that explore issues in designing for learning in museums and that I am re-publishing on this new blog about museums.

While looking through the tourist tchatchkas in Madrid, my partner saw something he wanted to bring home: a Spanish plate with a Star of David. He thought it a perfect souvenir, something from both of our heritages.

I replied that, although I appreciated the thought, my people were kicked out of Spain, and rather ceremoniously at that. I’m not sure I would be comfortable with a memento of that.

He wondered, then, about the ancient synagogues are still there and can be visited. Museums, I responded (and later verified). They were not working synagogues. Small Jewish communities have returned to Madrid and Barcelona, but only recently.

In other words, some healing needs to go on.

As I reflected further on the situation, I realized that many of the Spanish museums acknowledge this part of the past, though not to the degree that Germany museums explore what happened in World War II.

That, in turn, caused me to reflect on—well how do museums handle difficult subjects, like World War II, the Inquisition, and colonialism. The more I thought about it, the more the response seemed like, an onion. Different museums peel back different numbers of layers.

Some ignore the onion completely, and completely ignore difficult subjects. The Musee de Quai Branley is an example of this, almost ignoring French colonialism and how that likely drove interest in the cultures explored by the museum. In general, it seemed that most French museums ignored other than the most cursory facts of history, even if they might have had an influence on the object. For example, the various art museums we visited in Paris make little or no mention of the French political situation at the time and its possible impact on the type of artwork that inspired. In contrast, el Museo de Traje in Madrid explored the influence of the political and social climate on clothing design.

Despite visits to 8 museums in Paris, one of the few that really illuminated the existence of the five republics an explanatory sign in the Republique station of the Metro. That signage was an example of the second level of addressing difficult subjects: going just beyond the surface layer of the onion to acknowledge the existence of the issue but never really exploring it.

Versailles, too, seemed to explore the more volatile parts of French history at that same level. It acknowledges changes in government and the extent to which the leaders of the republics mentioned in the exhibition succeeded. But it never really goes much deeper, like exploring the social and political situations that precipitated the various changes in government.

The third level of addressing difficult subjects in museums involves moving beyond the surface layer to acknowledge the existence of the issue and explore one of the perspectives on it. The history museums in Spain approached the Inquisition at that level. These museums mentioned the positive contributions of the Moors and the Jews, the fact of their expulsions, and the cost that Spain paid for the expulsions. But those events are solely explored from the perspective of the majority culture in Spain today; they don’t explore the impact of the Inquisition and expulsions on the Moors and the Jews.

The Inquisition Museum in Lima explores the Inquisition from the victim’s viewpoint, but only that viewpoint and the victims in South America, not that of other victims of the Inquisition. A complete exploration is probably beyond the scope of that museum, but a link from the South American experience to the broader one would widen the perspective of not only the exhibition but, more fundamentally, that of the visitors.

In contrast, the German museums explore in great depth the impact of World War II. Their response seems to be the most complete, going to the center of the onion to acknowledge both the existence of the issue and several perspectives on the underlying history. For example, the Deutsches Historiches Museum devotes nearly a quarter of its permanent exhibition of 2000 years of history to an exploration of just 27 years of the run-up to, and experience of, World War II. A friend who lives in Germany shone some light on the situation; I understand that the Germans have had lengthy discussions on how to address the past. The downside is that, because so many perspectives and so much detail is presented, the narrative is a bit difficult to follow. But perhaps that replicates reality.

The Civil War exhibition in the Atlanta History Center takes a similarly in-depth look at a challenging war. Although housed in the deep South of the US and in a city that, at some times, still feels like it’s healing from the Union burning of it in 1864, this exhibition presents sympathetic views of both the Union and the Confederacy. Like the World War II segments in the Deutsches Historiches Museum, the exhibition on the Civil War is an extensively narrated one.

This Atlanta exhibition is unique among those mentioned here, because all of the other museums mentioned here are public ones. So their presentations of history (or lack thereof) represent official versions of the past. Given that museums in a given country tend to all present stories at the same level, I hypothesize that different countries have ultimately come to differing levels of reconciliation with the less pleasant parts of their past.

As an academic, this recognition makes me wonder at which level I present the subjects I teach. Because I teach courses that, for my students, are primarily introductory, I admit that I probably present material at the second or third levels. I’d like to think I do that because it simplifies the presentation for the student, so that they can understand the subject best. It keeps with Carroll’s principles of minimalism. But in the process, am I also glossing over some important “histories?” Even if I am, are students ready to hear them, or would that just confuse them further?

But what do these levels of presenting difficult subjects have to do with information architecture and design? For the most part, we work as hired hands, and report a point of view, either explicitly or implicitly. As I find when I’m teaching, when merely instructing people about how to do something, that simplification is probably helpful. It’s called minimalism and people learn to perform new skills best if they’re not unnecessarily confused and presented with levels of complexity that, at first, can be avoided. But I find that, both in communication and instruction, we tend to leave the information at that basic level. We assume people want to get right to work and we avoid the complexity. Educators tout—and evidence supports—the use of simulations to present learners with complexity and providing them with an opportunity to figure out how to deal with it. But it’s one thing to merely encounter the complexity; users need to explore it—not just from their own perspectives but those of others. Although simulations might provide such opportunities, they’re rarely taken. Only with human facilitation are students likely to explore these other perspectives.

More fundamentally, many professional communicators are responsible for communicating an organization’s point of view about a complex subject. The resulting presentations are admittedly focused on a single viewpoint (I probably should say biased but am reluctant to). But in focusing on one view—we often ignore the other view. That actually does little to benefit the viewpoint for which we are advocating. Leaving something out is usually purposeful, but it often appears like a glaring oversight to the audience and that, in turn challenges the credibility of the argument.

In some instances, we purposely leave out material, hoping people will never find out the truth. The recent incident with the Shirley Sherrod tape—edited to appear as if she were saying the opposite of what she actually said—and BP’s editing of photos to suggest that the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico was less extensive than it was—the problem often comes back to haunt us. In the latter case, it only cemented a bad image of BP. In the former case, most of the damage was done to once credible politicians and news organizations, which jumped on the story rather than investigating, as they should.

More than missing the facts, these situations quickly degenerated into fact-checking and credibility exercises, instead of a more fundamental discussion of meaningful issues. If we ever want to move beyond the past, then, we really need to make sure we have our facts straight and understand all of the different perspectives on it.

This brings me to a related issue underlying the exploration of difficult pasts—and, for that matter, any difficult subjects: the impact on research in these fields. Often, researchers have perspectives on issues that derive from their own pasts. Unless they’re aware of them, these issues can lead issues to overlook issues that are clearly evident in the data. For example, I was reading one manuscript in which the author was, on the one hand, impressed and awed by the people participating in the study. On the other hand, the data suggested that some aspects of their work under study was handled in a cursory fashion—and it was a pattern that existed among all of the participants in the study. Researchers are supposed to follow the data; but that’s hard to do if the data raises issues the researcher is not ready to confront.

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