Artifact Controversies

Looking for a new way to engage your museum’s participants with its collections? An exhibit called “Controversy” at the Ohio History Center is a model that most history museums could R&D—rip-off and duplicate. Curators displayed objects with little physical or interpretative background. Rather than use a didactic approach to presenting the objects, the exhibit encouraged visitors to the museum to imagine each artifact’s significance, to raise questions, and to share ideas with other participants. Visitors loved the experimental, exploratory tenor of the project. In fact, the show was so successful in its first incarnation, that OHC staff (who recently presented about this exhibit at the AASLH conference) created a sequel, “Controversy 2.”

Most curators and collections managers know of intriguing artifacts that raise more questions than the limited documentation accompanying them can answer. Rather than keeping them locked away in storage because they do not fit neatly into the stories that our institutions have told or want to tell, they can be displayed as conversation starters.


This military helmet (c. 1812-1860), currently on exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of History, offers little interpretive information but suggests many questions. Visitors may ask themselves: What type of hair is it? Why was hair included? Does the form refer to Native American scalping practices in any way or does it follow ancient European traditions? If the exhibition allowed space for feedback methods, then one participant’s questions could provide food for thought for others. Participants could then even generate and share possible answers.

Some especially provocative and emotionally challenging artifacts can also be the most influential and engaging. The strong reactions that some objects elicit can be used as teaching moments. On the Indiana University campus, for instance, in 2002 representatives from the Black Student Union asked the University president to remove one of painter Thomas Hart Benton’s Depression-Era panels from public display. In an assemblage of historical scenes, the painter had included a Klansman with a burning cross to juxtapose Indiana’s past KKK prominence with its recent progress. Some 21st-century students were so upset by the image that they couldn’t concentrate in classes where the panel was on display. Rather than capitulate to demands to move the panel, the university president initiated an interpretive series on the panels for interested students. To read more about that controversy, visit

Could you consider assembling a “Controversy” exhibit at your institution? Which objects would you include?


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on November 13, 2012, in collections access, Exhibitions, museums, public programs and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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