Hidden objects on display
Museums cannot control media nor the views of politicians. It would, in fact, normally be a good thing that people have an opinion on what we are doing. Of course, we also love when the press bothers to write about our activities. However, in the present case, this coverage went in an unexpected direction taking on a surreal spin which the museum had no chance of controlling.
In 2017, Denmark commemorates the Centennial of the transfer of the former Danish West Indies over the United States of America. At Museum Vestsjælland, we have created an exhibition on the many connections between our local region and the former Danish West Indies. A portion of the exhibition on Danish colonial history, addresses the use of stereotypes and designations.
This choice placed the project in the midst of a media storm created by leading politicians in Denmark even before the exhibition opened. Even though nobody had seen the exhibition nor the objects in question, discussions arose on radio, in newspapers and online, lasting for several days. The museum even received hate mails. The museum was accused of exercising self-censorship and hiding controversial objects from the public in an act of 'political correctness'. In actuality, the museum did just the opposite. However, the incorrect view kept circulating and duplicating itself, despite any attempts to explain the underlying considerations. After a week of media storm, a blog media finally made an appointment with the museum and came to see the objects in question, as the very first media. No one else from the press had wanted to come before that and even up to this day, everyone remembers ‘the hidden objects’ when they hear the name of our museum.
This whole experience could make museums hesitate when considering working with controversial topics. One could even imagine museums changing their exhibitions altogether when facing pressure or nervous management with worries about funding. How can we act when media and politicians have their own agenda? And do we, as curators, exercise self-censorship wittingly or unwittingly to avoid pressure from media, management and the press and in so doing are guilty of exactly that which we were accused of?
Karen Sivebæk Munk-Nielsen holds an MA in History, Copenhagen University. She has been working in the National Archives of Denmark with the project ‘St. Croix African roots project’ and in the National Museum of Denmark. Since 2009 she is employed at Holbæk Museum.
Images: Karen Sivebæk Munk-Nielsen