When the Smithsonian staff was preparing an exhibition about the 30th anniversary of the HIV-AIDS epidemic last summer, there were soul-searching discussions.
The exhibition at the National Museum of American History explains the scientific aspects and social consequences of the AIDS fight and contains condoms, blood testers, explicit material on healthy sex and some posters with explicit language.
“We got into a discussion of the visual images,” said Richard Kurin, the undersecretary for history, art and culture. After the review process, it was decided to divide the materials into distinct areas, with the unobjectionable AIDS quilt showcased in a main hall and more graphic materials displayed in areas with less traffic.
That kind of scrutiny was prompted by a tightening of procedures after the Smithsonian ignited a major controversy last year among artists, museum personnel and the public when it withdrew a video some found offensive from an art exhibit.
Secretary G. Wayne Clough’s decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s video in “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the first ever major show about same-sex intimacy, prompted a number of reforms around exhibition planning.
Sitting in his office in the Smithsonian Castle, Kurin said one of the lessons was “we have to be adept at communication.”
Clough has acknowledged that he might have acted too quickly although he maintains his action would have been the same. The four-minute video, “A Fire in My Belly,” contained an excerpt depicting ants crawling over a plastic crucifix.
“You do what you can to slow down the clock, and you want more consultation with your stakeholders,” said Kurin, who coordinated implementing the recommendations of a panel chaired by John McCarter, president of Chicago’s Field Museum and a Smithsonian regent.
Kurin said exhibition planners need to anticipate controversy. “At least consider that,” he said.
Controversies do occur. In 1968, the Smithsonian museums were kept open despite negative public sentiment when thousands of anti-poverty protesters built encampments on the Mall during the Poor People’s Campaign. In 1995, a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, brought angry criticism from those who thought the proposed script leaned to an antiwar sentiment. The exhibit was scrapped. The plane is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, with just the facts.
In October, a group tried to storm the National Air and Space Museum to complain about an exhibit of ummanned military aerial vehicles, or drones, which had been in public view for three years. “It just took on another meaning,” Kurin said. “We cannot refrain from dealing with the day’s issues. We just have to be smart about how we do it.”
National leaders, such as Ford Bell, the president of the American Association of Museums, says the Smithsonian’s job is a difficult one, given its congressional scrutiny. “It is wrong for us to put the Smithsonian in the position of being in the vanguard when it is so vulnerable to political whims.” He said he hopes the Smithsonian keeps to its pledge of broader deliberation if there are red flags about a show. When “Hide/Seek” was being reviewed originally at the Smithsonian, the officials didn’t preview the video that caused all the problems.
Clough pulled the video after powerful Republican legislators threatened to sanction the Smithsonian with budget cuts. In the end, the Smithsonian retained its funding levels of $761.4 million for 2011.
The internal mechanisms are working, says the National Air and Space Museum’s director, retired Marine Corps Gen. John “Jack” Dailey. “There is a higher sense of awareness that you need to vet an exhibit properly,” says Dailey, who is part of an advisory group that meets with Clough. “When there is an issue, he can get people together very rapidly, and this is the most open forum for sensitive discussions.”
Recommendations from McCarter’s report suggested “pre-decisional” actions. “Culturally sensitive exhibitions should be previewed from a diverse set of perspectives. It would seem appropriate for the Smithsonian to be fully informed about red flags before exhibitions go public.'
That happened with a planned spring 2012 show called “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds” at the Sackler Gallery. Critics said the Tang items were recovered by practices by commercial explorers that did not meet the archaeological field’s standards.
To air out all opinions, the Smithsonian convened a conference in April. “For some professional archaeologists, it is a result of treasure hunting and there is the ethics of how you arrived at this knowledge. They had a question about if the Smithsonian exhibits the material, are you giving credibility to the methods?’’ Kurin said.
The exhibition has been postponed.
While the new guidelines have resulted in vigorous discussions, Kurin said he is encouraging people not to step back from tough ideas or engage in any self-censorship. “We have not turned down any ideas,” he said.