Billy Graham and the risks of sharing authority

The North Carolina Museum of History is hosting an exhibit, Billy Graham: North Carolina’s Favorite Son, and the News & Observer put their report on the front page above the fold. Reporter Tim Funk’s chief concern is that the exhibit fails to confront Graham’s association with Richard Nixon. This is the most common type of popular criticism about any museum production—“the exhibit didn’t interpret the thing I wanted interpreted, in the way I wanted it interpreted…”—and as a class of criticism is just above juvenile.

Billy Graham is a worthy subject for the state’s history museum. As a Tarheel, perhaps only Michael Jordan is more well known. As a subject of academic inquiry, he is becoming ever more important. Graham was central to the evangelical revivals of the post-World War II period and therefore to the milieu that explains the rise of the New Right in the 1970s. Kevin Kruse, most recently, placed Graham within the context of a sort-of businessmen’s revival that critically linked evangelical religion with free market rhetoric for the first time in the popular consciousness.

But this exhibit is not a critical assessment and contextualization of Graham’s life. This is an unhesitating celebration of the preacher’s life and mission. (And I don’t agree that exhibits should by default be academic analyses.) In brief text labels and environmental elements the visitor walks through the Graham farmstead in Mecklenburg County, where young Billy learned good morals from his mother and salvation from travelling evangelist Mordecai Ham. The bulk of the exhibit space is devoted to his mission as carried out in his Crusades. Amid the audible bubbling of numerous sermons and videos of pulpit preaching, we track Graham from his days as an enthusiastic Billy Sunday impersonator to his later years as a couch-bound statesman for the Lord. IMG_1937His Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden crusades are noted and a section highlights his anti segregation stand (at least in the conduct of his Crusades; one wonders if Graham recalled Dwight Moody’s much-too-late condemnation of segregation in the 1890s). These stories are told via images, graphics, and text. Artifacts are few and not well exploited (Ruth Graham’s Biblical flash cards lay scattered amid other desk items and Graham’s marked up preaching Bible is similarly grouped with unremarkable items.) Later sections discuss the ministry’s efforts to expand into print, radio, television, and the Internet. It finishes with appeals for the exhibit’s creator, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. I am certain that this part will receive the most attention from museum critics, especially for items like the business cards that ask, “Want to know more about Jesus or find tools to help grow your faith? Visit NCFavoriteSon.org.”IMG_1934

The museum did not create this exhibit, but it might, at times, be difficult to disentangle the exhibit’s low-key proselytizing from the museum’s mission. I raised this issue with my students this morning. When a state government museum relies on outside funding to even have exhibits and programs, why would you turn down the offer of a pretty substantial installation? Yes, it can be seen as betrayal of integrity. It is not an easy decision, I’m sure, with no easy answer. A friend of mine at a municipal museum has to decide if he wants to accept the offer of a local law firm to pay for a vanity exhibit on the occasion of their anniversary. Doing so may cement a lucrative partnership. I can’t sit here in the academy and dismiss that. But my friend has a track record of hosting other organizations’ self-produced exhibits: the Junior League, the Girl Scouts, and so on.

And that gets to the other side of my thinking on this. I can easily interpret this as a fine example of (geh) “shared authority,” of allowing in an enthusiastic community partner to promote an authentic (if politically savvy) community voice. We advocate this, don’t we? In fact, on this blog, I’ve called for the installation of #BlackLivesMatter-curated art in Civil War museums. Being aware of historical disparities in institutional power, is there really any difference in the invitation to share opinionated—or in this case, celebratory—voices? (And what’s being betrayed when the museum doesn’t have a mission to create challenging programs?) As for institutional voices in this case, the museum might have worked harder to alert visitors to the origin of this exhibit. (I’m thinking of a larger programmatic branding of non-museum exhibits as “community exhibits”—not something ham-fisted like a label disavowing the thing.)

The exhibit itself—in the context of this space—does an interesting thing. In a state government institution obsessed with “neutrality” and “balance” and avoiding strong opinions, this exhibit has a point of view—about “extraordinary things God can do through a life yielded to him” as demonstrated in the mission and life of Billy Graham.

I know. This text and this point of view are perfectly designed to make my lefty museum friends’ heads explode (I’m one of you!) But I’ve been reading some about “agonistic” dialog in museums, and disagreement is essential to a pluralistic democracy, right? I’m fine with it, even if this particular exhibit is not pursuing that agenda.

This exhibit’s text conveys a unique voice for a segment of the audience. It faithfully conveys what Billy Graham knows about his own life. It doesn’t need to offer critical separation or handling to do that. Sarah Bartlett in her Exhibitions article “Can Museums Take a Stand?” [.pdf] chronicled interpretive decisions at Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center to tell a story of Japanese American internees without presenting an artificial debate about the propriety of internment. In the actual exhibit, designers took a single point of view from start to finish, foregrounding the internee experience, rather than framing it all in omniscient narrative. Factual information was conveyed in the language of “us” and “we.”

“In March 1942, the military informed us that all Nikkei on the West Coast would be subject to exclusion orders…”

This is terribly effective (pending research, of course) way of inviting the audience into the text—to use the most boring part of exhibits to engage them. It also announces that an institutional pose of “balance” should not be expected. That is engaging and engaging is what we’re looking for.

Text in Billy Graham: North Carolina’s Favorite Son performs a similar task. Largely, the text is inert prose, but it incorporates extremely personal faith beliefs where one might not expect. The panel on Billy’s conversion reads,

“The inner change that Billy experienced was accompanied by an outward change, a fact that was immediately apparent to his family. Billy’s thoughts increasingly gravitated toward the spiritual. His life took on a greater meaning, and he sought purpose even in ordinary activities like chores and schools.”

Throughout the exhibit are plexiglass profiles of converts, with testimony about their conversion experiences at a Crusade.IMG_1941

By doing this exhibit designers may satisfy the expectations of a great deal of visitors. I don’t think the institution should have mediated the voices of faith in an exhibit about a man of faith. The minor proselytizing at the end is a bit troublesome, but when the modern museum needs to open itself to authentic community voices (which I am teaching my students to do), when does the museum intervene to negotiate those voices?

As a museum studies teacher and an academic with religious-studies leanings, this exhibit is neat because I enjoy seeing a marginalized group’s faith beliefs taken seriously. But it’s appeal is a bit limited—for me. I would have liked a more provocative or challenging program. Presentation of Graham in a thick historical context–not a providential one–would certainly have been new information for many visitors. I might have actually learned something I didn’t already know. But that’s the risk of sharing authority.

(Edit: Follow-up thoughts above.)

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