Follow up thoughts on Billy Graham

I’m still thinking through things on the Billy Graham exhibit. Please allow for some more noodling.

  • I really like that this exhibit has an unabashed evangelical voice. That voice is generally lacking in the world of critical history. This is not a critical exhibit, but every exhibit doesn’t need to be and I suspect most community curators won’t produce one. That, by the way, is a tension I see in current museum literature that isn’t talked about enough—at least by academic idealists presently steeped in the language of dialogic museums.
  • Low resource environments—more so than intentionality in community curatorship—likely produce museums that exhibit outside-curated stories. Is this situation taught in museum studies programs?
  • This museum has been doing these things for years. In 2002, I curated an exhibit there paid for by the North Carolina Society of Civil Engineers to celebrate their 50th anniversary. In that case, we had “creative control,” but we talked about what they suggested and it was celebratory. It won an AASLH award. The Billy Graham exhibit was created by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and had no creative input from the staff at large. Drawing a hard line on interpretive or curatorial oversight is a thing that probably won’t work in reality.
  • This can work. Museums should host exhibits with points of view that defy an artificial sense of neutrality—even to the point of having an altar call. The North Carolina Museum of History is not set up to handle that. In a low resource state agency it is concerned—with good reason—with maintaining non-controversial “neutrality.” It is a celebratory space (and that’s fine) with tendencies toward pirates and militaria, and standards for success based on attendance numbers, not meaning making through dialog.
  • Because of this context, the loose ends of Billy Graham are going to get tugged at. Were I them, I’d be more intentional about clearly branding this space or a program as “community voices” so that the institution has a reputation for allowing non-institutional voices, and that visitors know this going in. Right now, that is not clear to me, and I pay attention. This can be done without making it seem like the museum is either “endorsing” a point of view, or distancing itself from one, which will happen if you do not own the larger concept. Either way is off-putting.
  • This is pay-to-play and ensures that well funded mainstream and conventional communities will be represented and marginal communities will not have a place. Make no mistake—this is a huge problem, and something the museum should be worried about. But is it?
  • I really have to stop misusing the term shared authority.

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