What role and responsibility do museums have when it comes to
exhibitions that deal with the harm people do to one another? That
was the topic of the panel discussion, “Displaying Violence:
Museums and the Politics of Representation,” held Nov. 5 in
the Carlos Museum reception hall.
The event centered around three exhibits and/or museums: the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; the “Without Sanctuary”
exhibit of lynching photographs currently on display at Atlanta’s
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site; and a new photography
exhibit in Schatten Gallery, “A Long Look Homeward,”
which chronicles the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet from
1950 to the present.
The panel featured five Emory scholars and one visitor. Paul Courtright,
professor of Asian studies, moderated. In order of their addresses,
the other Emory participants were Bonnie Speed, new director of
the Carlos Museum; Randall Burkett, African American studies bibliographer
in Special Collections; Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern
Jewish and Holocaust Studies; and Ivan Karp, director of the Center
for the Study of Public Scholarship. Also speaking was Michael Ginguld,
former director of the Tibet Museum in Dharamsala, India.
Each speaker touched on the particular exhibit or museum with which
he or she was most familiar, except for Speed, who opened the panel
with her views on museums as thought-provoking, educational institutions.
Too often lately they have become “museums of consensus,”
Speed said, offering only material that is likely to appeal to the
most—or offend the fewest—viewers. She cited the furor
over the Smithsonian’s 1995 “Enola Gay” exhibit
“How do museums prove their worth today?” Speed asked.
“Attendance. Never mind that attendance has nothing to do
with enlightenment. It’s not how many or how long are the
museum visits; it’s how valuable are those visits?”
Burkett described in detail the long and painstaking process by
which James Allen’s and John Littlefield’s collection
of lynching photographs (on permanent loan to Special Collections)
came to be exhibited first at a small private gallery in Manhatten,
then at the larger New York Historical Society, then at the Andy
Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and finally—with a great deal
of help from Emory—in Atlanta at the MLK National Historic
Burkett didn’t draw a direct connection, but ever since the
photographs were first publicly shown in 2000, he said there has
been an “explosion” of scholarly research on lynching
and racial violence.
Lipstadt, who served as an advisor to the creation of the Holocaust
Museum, talked about its “skewed” architecture—features
such as a skylight of barely uneven panels and stairways that narrow
like railroad tracks in perspective—that is intended to leave
visitors feeling curiously, almost subconsciously, uneasy.
“I was in the building many times but couldn’t articulate
these things,” Lipstadt said. “Things are just somehow
Ginguld said that, unlike the events depicted in the Holocaust museum
or the “Without Sanctuary” exhibit, the occupation of
Tibet is an ongoing situation. In exhibits that deal with violent
oppression, he said, designers and curators are remiss if they pay
attention only to one side.
“You’re trying to affirm identities and reconcile the
feelings of the oppressed and the oppressors—but what do you
do with the oppressors?” Ginguld said. “If you don’t
give them an avenue [for expression], you don’t have reconciliation.”
Finally, Karp talked about the Holocaust Museum and why it is successful
even though it is very “authoritarian”—visitors
are directed around the space in a designed, deliberate fashion—and
goes against his own views of how a museum should be structured.
He spoke particularly of one room, full of thousands of shoes formerly
worn by victims of Nazi concentration camps.
“First, there is the immensity of the situation that is implied,
and then there is the musty smell of these old shoes,” Karp
said. “This is where the museum ‘hit me.’ My reaction
and response was not just a visual experience, but a broad sensory
array on the one hand, and then a reaction of the whole person on
Karp also commented on the delicate negotiations involved in bringing
“Without Sanctuary” to Atlanta, saying that not a single
potential corporate sponsor in town even replied to the first appeal
for support. Karp compared the situation to that of Birmingham,
Ala., which hosts the National Civil Rights Museum.
“How is it,” Karp asked, “that ‘Bombingham,’
a city associated with some of the worst racial violence this country
has ever seen, can see its way to building a museum dedicated to
civil rights, while in ‘The City Too Busy to Hate,’
an exhibit like [“Without Sanctuary”] has to be brought
about by walking on eggshells?”