Exhibits with an Agenda

I am currently part of a team preparing a small exhibit on sustainable energy for a Midwestern history museum. Our original goal was simple: to review the regional history of renewable energy production and use, in order to illustrate that “green living” is not a new concept. However, as with most creations of passionate people, the size and scope of the exhibit has expanded quite a bit, and the exhibit is now intended to be a more forceful argument for responsible energy use and the importance of being aware of one’s own energy footprint. There’s no denying this argument has always been an implicit part of the exhibit plan. In this part of the world, there is an unfortunate resistance to, if not outright demonization of progressive energy policy, and we absolutely want to undermine the assumptions and misconceptions that fuel this anti-green discourse. What has changed is that we’ve stopped hiding our agenda.

In his 1994 essay Evaluating the Ethics and Consciences of Museums, Robert Sullivan proposes that museums are “moral educators”. Either deliberately or through unconscious subtext, museums inherently shape the opinions, worldview and conception of self of their visitors. It is unavoidable that museum content will be shaped by subtextual ideologies and assumptions. Identifying and unpacking these biases is a huge issue (it’s basically the entire focus of the humanities for the last 50 years or so), but one can still exert a degree of control over which assumptions are expressed.

Museums are among the most trusted of media forms, and are widely considered to be far more reliable than books, television or newspapers. This public trust can be intimidating, but it does present a unique opportunity: if a museum takes a stand on an important issue, it will probably be taken seriously. Obviously, trust is not a resource to be squandered needlessly, but when wielded with care and deliberation it can be very powerful.

With our sustainable energy exhibit, we are trying very hard to harness that power in an effective way. The issues that surround energy use are very serious, as the availability and ready access of energy are critical to our modern economy, infrastructure, and way of life. Unfortunately, the discourse around renewable energy, diminishing fossil fuels and climate change is highly politicized. We want to be plain about the economic and environmental dangers that good, solid research tells us is in our future, and we want to call out sources of misinformation. Above all, we want to give people the intellectual tools to evaluate controversial issues for themselves, and to identify which arguments are backed by concrete evidence and which are not.

Our exhibit may well raise some eyebrows for taking a hard stance on a topic that many in this region consider to be “controversial”. I think this is a good thing. Museums really should not be playing the “both sides of the story” game that other media forms play when the evidence and experts clearly favor one camp. If we are avoiding asking our audiences hard questions, then we are not teaching, and we are not doing our job.

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Filed under education, exhibits, museums, opinion, science communication

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