Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Self-Censorship for Museum Professionals

There are lots of things visitors can’t do in museums. But what about the things that museum professionals can’t (or feel they can’t) do? This week at the ASTC conference, Kathy McLean, Tom Rockwell, Eric Siegel and I presented a session called “You Can’t Do That in Museums!” in which we explored the peculiarities of self-censorship in the creation of museum exhibitions. You can view (and download) the slides and audio here, which feature our provocations and the discussion that followed. The audio starts noisy... but it gets better. Trust me.


As part of the session, Tom led live drawing (click for high-res image), and we invited the audience to add their own “can’t dos” to a large map of things that are “safe,” “iffy,” and “no way”--more on that later.

Here are a few things I learned from this session:
  1. Self-censorship is different in different museum types. In science and technology centers, there are some “can’t”s that are alive and well in other museums. For example, “Nazi science” came up several times as a “can’t”—but the Holocaust Museum’s Deadly Medicine exhibition was a successful project that didn’t bring the walls down. And while narrative-based museums have long dispensed with the concept that museums present a neutral point of view, science centers still feel that their trustworthiness rests on their objectivity. This is not to say that science centers are more censored than art or history museums—every kind of museum has its own hang-ups. Imagine an art museum that allowed patrons to bang on the exhibits the way you can in a science center.
  2. Focusing on youth audiences can lead to heavy and sometimes inappropriate self-censorship. Our desire to "protect kids"--which reflects twenty years of clamping down (at least in the U.S.) on kids' freedom--keeps science and technology museums from hard topics and edgy presentation styles. As Eric said at one point, "kids--our target audience--are living in a world of things they choose to consume that is so full of sex, so full of irony, so full of subjectivity, and when they come to the museum it is one of the few places in the world they don't see that stuff. And so my question is, why are we keeping them away? Why aren't we developing our audiences?"
  3. Science is political, and science museums have a hard time grappling with that fact. Tom compared public perception of racial intelligence to that of sexual orientation, commenting that over the last thirty years, the left has advocated to have racial intelligence categorized as nurture and sexual orientation categorized as nature. The right advocates for the opposite. The way we think about science—and possibly the way we do it—is connected to our political leanings.
  4. Museum professionals don’t have the tools to make wise decisions about when and why to self-censor. Many people mentioned the intelligent design/evolution debate, raising examples of angry homeschoolers and religious groups. Few were able to articulate a response policy that wasn't based entirely on the volume of the ire raised. If you do offend, ask yourself—who do you offend and why? Do they have a valid claim or not? Do they represent a major constituency or not? One woman shared an anecdote about a label at a zoo that suggested that humans are crowding out elephants. She was pleased to receive angry letters about the label. It let her know that people were reading it and cared.
So how do we evaluate and make decisions about self-censorship? To prepare for the session, we talked about a metaphorical "comfort map" in the form of a bullseye, with the center circle for safe things, the intemediate ring for iffy things, and the outer ring for things outside our comfort zone. The important thing is not where you "draw the line" but how--and how we understand what is inside and outside our personal comfort zones. For the session, we made that concept real. Over 100 participants contributed post-its to the comfort map (shown at right) with examples in the categories of "safe," "iffy," and "no way." As you can see, most of the examples were in the iffy category--the hazy borders of our comfort. To that end, I have captured the examples on the post-its in five categories, separating the "iffy" layer into three categories (creatively named 1, 2, 3). Here are the words that came up on the comfort zone map:And here is the complete transcription of the post-its. There's a lot of great content in them. Note that the authors did not identify whether these examples represent real situations, fictitious potential, risks taken or avoided. I encourage you to add your own examples and thoughts on this list to the comments. Thank you to everyone who participated and I hope that this is just the beginning of a larger discussion about courage, thoughtfulness, and consideration of self-censorship.

Safe Zone:
  • Politics
  • Medical testing on animals… leading to death. Experimental trails on humans
  • Historical antecedents to modern day “hot button” topics
  • Lecture series
  • Population growth (down arrow)
  • What technology is developed reflects the political structure of a society and its values
  • An exhibit of a plastinated cow or pig as part of a larger Children’s museum exhibition on agriculture. The cow or pig exhibit is called “Meet Your Meat.”
  • Poverty – the data, causes, models behind the experiences
  • Reproduction (not sex)
Iffy layer 1:
  • Debunking bad science
  • Genocide aftermath
  • Museums satirizing their “museumness”
  • Social engineering of science communication by foundation interests
  • Existence and effect and causes of unequal educational access, i.e. achievement gap
  • Politics of Start Trek –prime directive, -what our government could learn to improve international policies
  • Advertising and psychological manipulation
  • The science of class
  • Aging-physical aging-more than just faces
  • Paradox
  • Love, lust, and human sexuality.
  • Use expert-only vocabulary – stop making entry points for general public, students, families
  • Social science of war. If humans have become so much more intelligent in the last 100,000 years, why can’t we evolve out of wars?
Iffy layer 2:
  • Death (x2)
  • Local controversies
  • Selfishness
  • Methods of population control
  • Schadenfrode
  • Population control and climate change
  • Race
  • Homosexuality in the animal kingdom
  • Urban legends
  • Personal responsibility and body politics with the obesity epidemic
  • Debunking contemporary, real-world examples of bad science used to sell products (arguably the greatest genuine need citizens have for selective thinking)
  • Teen pregnancy, contraception, STDs
  • Addiction
  • A large student-made flag, sent to Iraq, signed by troops, returned to the U.S., and displayed in the museum.
  • Challenge a board member’s company or a sponsor –environmental issues, -research ethics
  • I’m gay – I was born that way
  • Equivalent of a wiki, but in exhibit form – group creation over time
  • Tuskegee and similar “experiments” and current pharmacological research
  • The technology of war
  • Pub science
  • Relationship between culturally, specific traditional values and contemporary political correctness
  • Common themes across all creation myths – fire, blood, famine… “chosenness”
Iffy layer 3:
  • Why did people need to invent god?
  • Resettlement scenarios due to sea level rise.
  • Science of homosexuality
  • Strongly political figures presenting advocacy positions in science
  • Fundamental religion and evolution
  • Condom science, or Polymer Barriers and You
  • Enhancement, mental and physical – enhancing drugs and biotechnology
  • Freakonomics – statistical connections between social policies (eg availability of abortion) and economic impact…
  • Abortion
  • Let visitors talk back to exhibits – encourage anyone to challenge the exhibit’s expertise or authority (soapbox, stage)
  • Race
  • Documentation, excerpts, and outtakes from science issues forum held with local politicians
  • Inherent cognitive sex differences
  • Science of immigration
  • War exhibits
  • An exhibit without words
  • Understanding human violence and violence against each other
  • Environmental/ecological justice (greater impact of environmental harm on minorities – health/community)
  • Cultural native knowledge issue – native peoples disagree about what can or can’t be shared with non-native people and what can be shared period.
  • Science of sexual deviance
  • Economics of oppression
  • The nature of faith
  • Bad science, scientific errors, disproven theories and frauds throughout history
  • Nuclear power
  • Endorsing politicians or policy

No way
  • Bible stories as metaphor versus history
  • Scientists/experts admitting they don’t know the answer or how to solve the problem
  • After death experience exhibit
  • Inviting sarah palin to our climate change exhibition
  • Nazi science
  • Nazi science and how it is used today
  • Valuable info came from nazi/death camp science experiments
  • Let kids go into collections storage unaccompanied
  • Sasquatch and yeti
  • Be rating exhibits – “you’re a dumb dumb!” “Why do homeless people smell bad?”
  • Very dangerous things (health and safety)
  • Adult camp-in “Partner Swap Among the Dinosaurs”
  • An exhibition on techniques, tips, and tools for covert eco-terrorism aimed at affecting government policy.
  • Child predators psychology
  • Public program: “How Eli Lily’s Drugs Ruined My Life” (Eli Lily is a major donor)
  • Intelligence (examination of low or lack of…)
  • Science of abortion
  • Death penalty
  • You should vote for X political party for a good climate change solution
  • Hallucinogenic drugs – positive effects (artists/imagination, spirituality)
  • Adult-only time (perceived as anti-kid)
  • Killers within you (i.e. cancer, stroke, heart attacks)
  • Animal testing
  • Hate crimes
  • Pedophilia
  • Other countries, not ours, are to blame for this problem.
  • Failure of NIH drug testing design
  • An exhibit only in a language other than English
  • Santa Claus – Real or Not? A scientific investigation for all ages.
  • Fight global warming by making the museum cafĂ© 100% vegan. *more effective than solar panels*
  • God
  • Chemistry did (does) a lot of damage to our planet.
  • The science of capital punishment from DNA to execution
  • Religion
  • Teen suicide, teen cutting – I wanted to include these in my museum’s “Hall of Human Life” teen area. Management was horrified.
  • “high risk” physicality, e.g. slides and climbing poles (liability-phobia)
  • the science behind butchering animals
  • pedophile science
  • science of sedition, e.g. extolling the virtues of socialism to the detriment of capitalism
  • orgasmic science
  • the science related to the Holocaust
  • bra and panties made of early nylon – show them together, hanging bra over panties.
  • How to perform an abortion
What would you add? What's in your comfort zone?

7 comments, add yours!:

Amanda McCormick said...

Slideshare as artform! I loved this presentation! Definite food for thought for anyone in an institution (as in nonprofit, I mean!) Thanks for sharing this.

ajpaschka said...

Should/Does an art museum show nudes if a huge amount of visitors are in the third grade?

Andrea said...

Hi Nina, great post. I couldn't attend the session and this is a great way to learn from it. One question about the tag cloud (brilliant): how are the colors of the words assigned? Do they reflect the origin zone where they come from?

Nina Simon said...

Andrea,
I made the word cloud with Wordle. The colors don't mean anything, just the sizes. Wordle is a neat tool and it gives lots of options for color, font, and arrangement.

Tamara said...

Thanks for documenting this session! I'm pondering the topic of consumption/consumerism, and how we can address it in our climate change project. It's something we want to tackle, but have to figure out how to do so without sounding preachy and finger-wagging. And what if we succeed in getting the message across, and gift-shop sales tank?!?

Raymond's Brain said...

This was a fascinating post.
I remember all the flack a colleague at a science centre went through developing an exhibit about UFOs to illustrate scientific method.

Maria Mortati said...

Hey Nina,

Really interesting session- I especially liked the interactivity of it. My boss (Chuck Howarth) said it reminded him of the "Enola Gay" controversy. Did that ever appear on the chart?

It's the story about the difficulties the National Air and Space Museum encountered when trying to display the B-29 bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

You can read about the controversy in the book Displays of Power, by Steven Dubin.