Relevance in museums: Temple or Forum?

It seems that this is another collections of articles which inadvertently raises the question: should museums be temples to the artifacts of the past, or should they be forums for debating issues both past and present. The authors of all of these articles, and it would seem that the majority of people involved in museum studies, believe that they are forums for discussion.
My only concern with this approach is the obsession with “relevance”. Because what is relevant to one is not necessarily relevant to another. I mean if someone were to put up an exhibit describing what happened in Ferguson in the Owyhee Co museum, I believe the locals would burn the building to the ground. Even in Boise I think something like that would draw a lot of fire from those in the community who are a little more “reactionary” in their politics. That being said, if a museum were to highlight historical injustice, like the “white only” water fountains in Canyon Co, or the plight of migrant Hispanic farm workers, or everything the Chinese overcame during the mining days, these (I believe) would be met with less hostility, and if properly curated could still bring attention to current problems.
An alternative, and I think the NEMO memo, and the UN refugee agency both had an idea that I believe would work well in an area like Boise which is relatively homogeneous, culturally speaking, but is struggling with including immigrants and refugees. The idea of using the museum to host conversations, using the space to help these new arrivals become acquainted with local culture, this seems to be a way to help both those who are new to the community, as well as those who might not be as welcoming.
I am one of those who wants to overthrow the existing order, rearrange the way people see the world, but I live in one of the most conservative states in the Union. And as such I think we as public historians need to try to find a way to drag our neighbors into the 21st century, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t make them pull away. Unfortunately I’m not exactly sure how to do that, but there has to be a way.

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Resident angry old man, Marxist revolutionary

3 thoughts on “Relevance in museums: Temple or Forum?”

  1. Absolutely Joe! It is a combination of what people “can” hear versus what they can’t or won’t with museums. The local dynamics (or lack there of) can easily play into the overall politics of what a museum “can” do or “should not”.

  2. I completely agree with your last statement. I feel the same way. It’s so hard to get this across to your neighbors though. Do you agree with some of the techniques we’ve read about before (like the slave auction in public) that really confront people with harsh realities? I’m very on the fence about that technique but sometimes it feels like the only way to reach people.

    1. I think the slave auction is a fantastic idea, but I think it would have limited benefit here. I think it would be really interesting to see how something like that could be done concerning Chinese exclusion, or Japanese internment, or mistreatment of Hispanics or Native Peoples. And I think it would have to be something much more than just telling white people “hey, you’re not allowed here today” or something like that, turning the actions of our forefathers against us.

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