Driving home from ATL I worried that my earlier admonition to “drop the pretense of objectivity and neutrality” in exhibits is needlessly glib (well, it is) and I wanted to clarify using an exhibit I saw last fall—Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations at the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C.
The content is episodic, featuring five (?) treaties in chronological order. Each treaty section follows a pattern of minimal textual introduction (I do not have good photographs to demonstrate this) followed by “viewpoints” sections that tell the story in longer labels. The “viewpoints” sections are simple representations of points of view and are placed side-by-side for emphasis.
Apart from the artifacts, the viewpoints labels are the weightiest parts of each section and constitute multiple voices without the mediation of an omniscient voice. And this works even though they are not quotes from primary documents, but text written by curators. I’m stuck by how much moral weight they have by being labeled “viewpoints,” even if on the surface, the actual text is very straightforward.
The counterpoint is backed up by placing artifacts and images in direct opposition.
And they have a sheen of “neutrality” because neither voice in each section projects a romanticism about Indians or a vindictiveness about the United States government that a critic might imagine when contemplating “dropping neutrality.” But here’s the thing… near the middle of the exhibit, the curatorial point of view emerges in the title label—“Bad Acts, Bad Paper.”
It is an affirmation of what the visitor may already be thinking based on preceding history he or she has just been through. It is earned. (And it works historically for the chronological positioning of that section in the late 19th century of that section.)
The curators handled this real well. I rarely emerge from any historical production both impressed by the complexity of the historical representations while at the same time swilling a minor sense of outrage (and as a historian of the American South, I’m rarely outraged at anything anymore.)
So what I’m looking for is exhibits on Civil War stuff that presents a point of view (or views) that are done not with primary sources, or mediated by a neutral voice, but in the actual curatorial voice of the exhibit.
Here is another example (.pdf)