The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Smithsonian defends inclusion of two Cosby items in new African American museum

Bill Cosby arrives for a court appearance in Norristown, Pa., on Feb. 3. (Mel Evans/AP)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is defending its decision to include two items related to Bill Cosby in an entertainment exhibition without detailing the widespread accusations of rape against him.

In a statement released on Twitter, the museum said that its “Taking the Stage” exhibition – one of 11 inaugural exhibitions that will be featured in the museum when it opens Sept. 24 – will include a comic book from the early Cosby vehicle “I, Spy” and the cover of Cosby’s 1964 album, “I Started Out as a Child.” The cover will be in a display that features six comedians: Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge and Cosby.

The museum’s decision to include the Cosby items was first reported in the New York Times. “There is not a Bill Cosby exhibition,” a museum statement said, noting that the items are among 150 in the theater, film and TV exhibition. There will be about 3,000 items on view throughout the museum. “The museum explores a diverse and complex history that reflects how all Americans are shaped by the African American experience,” the statement said.

[Lonnie Bunch and the countdown to the African American museum’s opening.]

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said that the text accompanying the exhibition would not address the claims by dozens of women that the comedian drugged them before raping or sexually abusing them. Cosby was charged with sexual assault last year.

Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton will not comment on the issue, St. Thomas said. “It wasn’t discussed with the secretary,” she said.

The exhibition’s curator, Katy Kendrick, said there was no debate about including Cosby. “Given his pioneering and award-winning achievements in television and comedy, it would be impossible to tell the story of African American contributions to American popular culture without mentioning him in some way, and to exclude him from the story would seriously challenge if not outright eliminate our credibility with visitors,” she said in a statement.

But no one at the museum has explained why the text explanation would ignore the comedian’s criminal and legal troubles.

“The labels are a work in progress,” St. Thomas said.

The Smithsonian’s relationship with Cosby raised eyebrows in 2014 when the National Museum of African Art kept open an exhibition featuring works from the comedian’s art collection alongside its own holdings. Museum director Johnnetta Cole wouldn’t answer questions about the exhibition, but posted a sign for visitors that said it “in no way condones Mr. Cosby’s behavior.” The museum allowed the exhibition to continue because, as the sign noted, “it is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not Mr. Cosby.”

Almost a year after it opened, Cole wrote on The Root website that she was “unaware of the allegations” when she accepted the loan of the artwork. “Had I known, I would not have moved forward with this particular exhibition,” she said.

Another copy of the comedy album cover and a Fat Albert lunchbox were on display at the National Museum of American History in the exhibition “Artifact Walls: The Early Sixties American Culture,” on view from April 2014 through August 2015. The text explaining the 1964 album also ignored the rape allegations, saying only that Cosby’s “wit and humor furthered the cause of racial integration by describing universal childhood experiences.”

Many institutions have cut ties with the entertainer. In January, George Washington University revoked the honorary degree awarded to Cosby in 1997, joining more than a half-dozen others to do so. And Spelman College, where Cole was once president, ended an endowed professorship associated with the comedian.