Courting Controversy: Letting Visitors Think for Themselves

Saturday, March 10, I had the opportunity to see Controversy 2: Pieces We Don’t Talk About at the Ohio History Center; the follow up to last year’s Controversy: Pieces You Don’t Normally See.

Imagine walking into an exhibition space and turning the corner, only to see a spotlighted Nazi flag hanging alone, staring back at you. What is your reaction? What does your reaction say about you? Do you rationalize your feelings about the object? What does your rationalization mean? What do the questions that the objects trigger in your mind say about your perspective and who you are?  Very deep questions, indeed.

The Controversy exhibitions are unique experiences for history museums to create.  They have very little interpretation and each object has its own dedicated “space.” There is no competition between objects and the visitor is able to have a moment with each object individually before they move on to the next one. Also, there are minimal graphics in each space and no audio. With little to no context, text or distraction the Controversy exhibition is powerful. This intimate experience takes the visitor beyond the realm of the typical exhibition walk-thru, offering the chance to engage with objects at the most basic level; ultimately, it forces each visitor to question what they can learn about themselves from the objects.

The Ohio Historical Society isn’t telling the visitor what to think. Instead, they are inviting the visitor on a personal tour of their own interpretation.

Jason Crabill

I had the pleasure of asking Jason Crabill, Manager of Curatorial Services, a few questions about the Controversy exhibitions and how they came to be:

Controversy and Controversy 2 are revolutionary exhibitions. I especially love the tag line, “What if we didn’t tell you what to think?” Where did this idea come from?
Thanks for saying that!  The concept is definitely an unusual one for history museums to attempt.  I don’t remember exactly where the tag line came from, but the concept of letting the objects speak for themselves was one of the founding principles as we began choosing objects and developing the first iteration, Controversy: Pieces We Don’t Normally See.  We knew we held powerful, complex objects in our collections that were hard to interpret and very rarely got to see the light of day.  So, we asked ourselves, what if we don’t interpret the objects?  What if we let visitors engage with the objects without getting in the way? And it worked. Then, once we had a proven framework, developing Controversy 2: Pieces We Don’t Talk About became less about the process and much more about the objects, which was really fun!

Having said that, I think it is really important to mention that at the end of the experience is a “conversation space” created specifically for further investigation, reflection and conversation.  Curator’s notebooks are provided in the space that provides additional primary sources and questions to spur additional conversation and context, for interested visitors.  There are also places for visitors to share their thoughts through comment cards, wall postings, and social media (#controversy2) that encourage investigation and further discussion about the objects and their meaning.

What was the process for selecting objects? How long did it take?
Well, for both exhibits, we began with a list of objects which was developed through a series of brainstorming sessions with staff.  These were followed by a daylong work session where the exhibit team hammered out the final selection and order.  With the first iteration, we were pretty confident that the electric chair would be at the core of the experience, but then we began working out from there, choosing objects that were iconic and seemed to “make sense”. Each object was then assigned a curator, who spent several weeks researching the context and primary sources surrounding the object  for use in the curator’s notebooks, on object labels and for programming. For this most recent iteration, we wanted to align with COSI’s (the local science center) efforts to bring to town the traveling exhibition Race: Are We So Different?.  I think we wanted to see how the Controversy model might work with a different theme and a different set of objects.  But the process was largely the same and people seem to be responding positively to the results so far!

 What were the objects in each exhibition?
In the original Controversy the five objects included a KKK robe, a 1860’s era sheepskin condom, an adult crib-bed used as a restraining device for mental health patients at the turn of the century, the Ohio electric chair and a thumb mitt device used by parents to keep children from sucking their thumbs.

In the current iteration, Controversy 2, the objects include a Nazi flag, a poem written in black dialect in 1905, a children’s bowling set with faces of ethnic caricatures on the pins, a set of Currier & Ive’s prints titled “Darktown” and a 1947 Cleveland Indians warm-up jacket featuring the Chief Wahoo logo.

 Were there any objects you would have liked to see in either exhibition?
Sure.  With only five objects in each iteration, there are always objects that get left out.  We deliberated long and hard about which objects to include (and exclude) from each exhibit, which was hard, because there were really good objects that we didn’t use because they just didn’t fit. But I think the object choices we made worked out pretty well in the end… And, it leaves the door open for future versions of Controversy that might include those objects.

Which object have you had the strongest reaction to?
Good question… Because of the very nature of the exhibits each person, bringing his or her own perspective, has had their own (often very different) reaction to the objects, which is kind of the point. Some people react emotionally, some intellectually, some intensely, some pretty nonchalantly.  In the first iteration, the electric chair and KKK robe became the obvious candidates to garner the most public reaction, but we had intensely emotional comments shared about all of the objects. Controversy 2 has only been open for a few weeks, but we have already seen the gamut of emotion surrounding each of the objects pretty equally. We’ve also seen a “meta” conversation happen over the course of both iterations about the exhibits themselves.  Some people claim that we have used the idea of controversy to exploit the objects, while others have argued that the history is important to see and that the exhibits do it very tastefully and powerfully. It has been fascinating to watch.  

Controversy seemed to be about power. Controversy 2 is about personal identity. Do you think there will be a Controversy 3?
Those are definitely the organizing principles that we worked under, but I’m not sure I’d say the exhibits are about those things.  If people come to those conclusions, that’s great, but if their personal interpretations lead them down a different path, we are comfortable with that, as long as they leave the exhibit asking questions and thinking about what they saw.  As to a Controversy 3, I think the door is always open for that possibility.  I actually think it would be very interesting to see other organizations use the model with their own collections and see what kind of an experience they can create.

Here’s your chance to give a pitch for OHS and Controversy 2. Go!
The Ohio History Center has gone through major changes in the last year, including nine new exhibits in the last 11 months.  Controversy 2: Pieces We Don’t Talk About is one of those exciting additions to the museum experience and it runs now through the end of the year.  I would encourage anyone who is interested to check it out!

Jason Crabill is Manager of Curatorial Services at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, Ohio. While at OHS, he has served on several exhibit development teams, including for both Controversy exhibits (most notably highlighted by his role as the “condom curator” for the first iteration of Controversy). Jason’s regular duties include overseeing the curators, registrars, catalogers and digital services staff of the institution. He is the project director of Ohio Memory, a collaborative digital library of over 353 libraries, historical societies and museums in Ohio and is co-director for the Ohio Newspaper Digitization Project, the state’s contribution to Chronicling America. Jason studied Anthropology at Ohio University, received his MLIS from Kent State University and is a proud graduate of the Seminar for Historical Administration, class of 2011.

One thought on “Courting Controversy: Letting Visitors Think for Themselves

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s