Exhibition Controversy

November 7, 2018 |  Tagged | Comments Off on Exhibition Controversy

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 It is difficult to avoid controversy with exhibitions of any nature because there are so many viewpoints and perspectives to consider.  When trying to engage the public with historical events or people, ideas that seem straightforward to one group can be interpreted in a completely different manner by others.  In order to understand these challenges it can help to evaluate smaller and more localized exhibits.  A great example that can be found in New York City is the Hamilton Grange National Memorial.  It is the restored residence of Alexander Hamilton currently located at 414 W 141st Street.  The house sits inside the St. Nicholas Park, giving it an almost pastoral setting in the middle of an urban environment.  This is actually the third location for the house, although it does still sit on land that would have been owned by Hamilton at the time he lived in the house.  The ground floor of the house functions as the visitor’s center which holds a small exhibition highlighting the accomplishments of Alexander Hamilton’s life.  It is small in scale and reading every plaque at a leisurely pace takes no more than thirty minutes.  What quickly becomes apparent, however, is how the memorial is not interested in delving too deeply into any single aspect of Hamilton’s life.  Perhaps this is because doing so does not paint the founding father in the best light possible.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Since his resurgence in the public eye, thanks to a major Broadway musical created about him, the public interest and academic scholarship on Alexander Hamilton has increased.  In our current environment, when the morality of his period and peers is under tight scrutiny and questioning, the character of Hamilton appears to offer a lot of advantages.  The display at Hamilton Grange is able to emphasize his contributions to the foundation of the country, the development of the economic system, his relationship with his wife and family, and his anti-slavery stance.  The only reference to something hidden the beneath the surface is a mention that his wife, Eliza, was able to soothe his temper.  No examples of this temper are given in the exhibition, with the exception of the infamous rivalry and life-ending duel with Aaron Burr.  It was not until the brief tour of the main floor of Hamilton Grange that a hint of scandal was mentioned.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The tour guide briefly mentioned an affair when referencing a replica of a gift from George Washington which was apparently sent to Hamilton after his reputation was in ruins.  The affair the guide was talking about has been considered the first political sex scandal of the country and involved a married woman name Maria Reynolds.  This was never mentioned in the downstairs exhibit.  Another exclusion from the exhibit is that Hamilton had at least one incident of an indentured servant and he apparently kept her well past the end of her contract.  It is well known that Hamilton was against slavery, and there are theories this stemmed from his Caribbean upbringing and his work with trading ships.  While his situation with any indentured servants would have undoubtedly been better than most, it does not change the fact that this was another type of free labor eventually outlawed as a form of slavery.  These are merely two examples of information most likely excluded to maintain the unblemished character of Alexander Hamilton.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The Hamilton Grange National Memorial fits nicely into the construct of an exhibition that can be free of controversy with its narrative- it is small in scope and focuses very directly on a specific person tied to a very specific location.  It also helps that the less desirable aspects of his character are minimal compared to some historical figures.  The renewed popularity of Alexander Hamilton does mean that more people may be aware of these elements, but does that necessarily mean they need to be addressed?  It seems that the larger the scope of an exhibit, the greater the chances of disappointing a portion of the audience.  No single exhibit can possibly cover every angle of a subject and offer explanations for each perspective.  For that reason, choices must be made and information is inevitably left out.  The more focused an exhibit can be, whether on an event, location, or person, the less those choices can affect the interpretation of interrelated elements.  However, the lack of controversy is not always a positive attribute.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The decision to eliminate these character flaws from the Hamilton Grange exhibit can also be seen as a sad commentary on our popular memory.  Ignoring his faults seems like an admission that our society cannot reconcile our predecessors being fallible and human.  Refusing to enter all details into the narrative means any dialogue produced from the exhibition will be only partially informed and dismissive of the facts.  We should be able to weigh the positive and negative aspects of a person’s character to logically determine the lessons their lives can impart.  If history has taught us anything it is that nobody is perfect.  Not allowing someone’s full character to show, for fear that flaws will negate all value, does their memory as a member of the human race a true disservice.  If the decision is made to incorporate controversial elements, the challenge becomes framing the information to encourage conversation as opposed to anger and debate.  There are no easy answers about how to accomplish this task which is probably why a lot of exhibitions choose not to engage in this way.  This decision should be reevaluated if an exhibition is hoping to accomplish something more meaningful than being a pretty display.


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