The Truth in Museums | Part 1

Museums have a mission

To exhibit, preserve, promote and scholarly interpret their collection. Over the years, more and more people are visiting museums, but the controversy of the artifacts in exhibitions is also intensifying. Ethics demand that museums tell the truth and do not mislead their audience. But what about situations when a museum can’t tell the absolute “truth” in an exhibit? Museum interpretations of the “truth” must be very carefully designed since the truth may sometimes be too upsetting for a group of people, a society, or even a nation. Museum curators should be able to use fictional evidence and metaphors in their exhibitions to a certain extent in order to get their ideas across to the audience, but they should not create exhibitions where all the artifacts are fictional and serve as pure entertainment for the audience.

Museums are places where history can be interpreted and where myths can be created. As Vera L. Zolberg states, “Myth does not necessarily entail falsehood, but emphasizes a truth incorporating symbolic and metaphorical reconstructions” (Zolberg, 1996). The Enola Gay exhibition in Washington, DC (1995) is a prominent example of the controversy that surrounds the creation of an exhibit and how the exhibit portrays history. The main controversy in this exhibit was how to display the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States during WWII. On August 6th, 1948, one atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the second was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.

Japan had no choice but to surrender to the Allies. The curator version of the exhibit featured the Enola Gay, the plane that carried the atomic bombs to Japan. The WWII United States veterans welcomed this version of the exhibit because they saw it as a tribute to their fallen comrades. On the other side of the controversy, people were asking why it was necessary to glorify the instrument used to bring the deadly atomic bomb to the innocent civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some even considered this exhibition as an insult to humanity since they felt that the exhibit celebrated and glorified the bombing. In the end, the Smithsonian organizers excluded a lot of objects and photos of the blast and the area where the bomb hit, termed “Ground Zero”. Also, only part of the Enola Gay aircraft was put on display, and only some interviews with its crewmembers were left from the whole script written by Michael Newfeld, the curator of the exhibition. Thus, the exhibit was scaled down from its original dimensions due to the controversy over what it means to tell the truth about such a historic event as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Second World War.

The Enola Gay exhibit demonstrates that to represent history is more complex than we may first envision. The telling of the “truth” in this case by displaying the Enola Gay was not only going to hurt the Japanese since it celebrated the destruction of two of their cities, but it also enraged groups in the United States that opposed the atomic bomb. The exhibit also forgot to show the suffering of the Japanese people in this country during World War II. Even though they were American citizens, Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in several concentration camps, and this violation of their civil rights should not be forgotten even after so many years. The museum exhibition only told part of the story of the United States government’s interaction with the Japanese people during World War II. It does provide a complete account and deliberately excludes the negative aspects of the government’s actions. Museums should not be allowed to select what truth to represent because the audience should be told the entire story of what happened. Museums have a heavy responsibility in representing history because their interpretation of history influenced the audience to take it as its own interpretation.

Thus, museum curators should try to portray a complete history, not just parts of it. Museums also have a responsibility to not offend other countries and peoples by glorifying acts and machines used to inflict pain and suffering on them. In the case of the Enola Gay, the glorifying of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been inappropriate since so many people were killed in that act. Therefore, museum curators need to be sensitive to all the different peoples incorporated in their exhibit, and they also need to modify their exhibits when an offense against others is made.Thus, since museums are places of learning and remembrance, curators should be allowed to use symbolic objects to a certain extent to get a point across when the artifacts are not available.

The Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia is a vivid example of the over usage of symbolic and metaphorical artifacts. This is reflected even in their old brochure which was revised and does not tell the audience that the house itself or the artifacts exhibited in the museum are not truly her own. Thus, a lot of controversy erupted over the Betsy Ross House. By analyzing the two brochures, one can see how policies changed over time. The old brochure was printed in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and it stated on the cover that the Betsy Ross House was where the first American flag was made. The new brochure gives no specific information about the house or its history; it only states the name of the house and its address.

The image on the cover is ambiguous and not easily recognizable as a flag. The title on the old brochure was “An American Patriot” while the title on the new brochure is “Who Was Betsy Ross?”. Beginning with the title, everything in the new brochure is very uncertain and refrains from making explicit interpretations about Betsy Ross. The old brochure states that Betsy Ross was a flag maker and she took care of her business as a flag maker until she died. The new brochure states that Betsy Ross made furniture upholstery, bed hangings, linens, ship pennants, and flags. It talks about her religion as a Quaker and provides context by describing life in Philadelphia during Betsy Ross’s time. Furthermore, the old brochure states that, “The first stars and stripes were sewn by Elizabeth Ross of Philadelphia”, whereas the new brochure discusses the fact that the making of the American flag by Betsy Ross is just a legend. It also states that no official record exists about Betsy Ross and the making of the flag.

Therefore, the old brochure is offensive and purposefully gives the impression that Betsy Ross’ story is true and she is an American hero. Conversely, the new brochure is defensive since it states that the legend of Betsy Ross is controversial, that the Betsy Ross House is not at fault, and “There is a good reason that historians could not find any proof.” In this case, what is the Betsy Ross House if it is not the real birthplace of the American flag? It’s only a place where people can go and see, “an important urban example of an artisan’s dwelling in 18th century Philadelphia”. Metaphors and fictional examples can be used in exhibitions but to a certain extent. They should not be used, though, to create a legend that has no real evidence to support it as in the case of the Betsy Ross House where only pair of glasses and a yardstick are believed to belong to her.

Adding fictional examples to museum exhibitions will make visitors to the museum live with a sense of wonder. An example of this is the Museum of Jurassic Technology where people will have trouble telling what is real and what is fiction. For instance, one-exhibit features a micro miniature sculpture by HagopSandaldjian of Goofy, which have to be viewed under twenty-five-power magnification.

Thus, although exhibit designers should choose what to include in an exhibit so that is not offensive and should use metaphors to depict certain artifacts that are not available, they should not create exhibitions that purport a legend that does not have any strong proof. Museums should try to represent history as accurately as possible and should not mislead the visitors and give a false interpretation of history.


Cabot, John Moors and James Cuno. “In the Crossfire of the Culture Wars: The Art Museum in Crisis.” Harvard University Art Museums Professional Training Occasional Paper 3 (1995).

“Changing Policies of the Betsy Ross House: An Analysis of Two Brochures.” Student presentation to MS502 class. April 23, 2003.

Kendrick, Kathleen and Steven Lubar. “Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History.” Artifact & Analysis.

Pachter, Marc. “Why Museums Matter.” MDA Conference 2002.

Weil, Stephen. “The Museum and the Public” (lecture at Teachers College, Columbia University). April 2, 1997.

Zolberg, Vera L. “Museums as contested sites of remembrance: the Enola Gay affair.” (The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review). 1996.

Enola Gay Exhibit (1995)

The National Air and Space Poster – Museum Smithsonian Institution

Washington DC, USA

Betsy Ross House (Museum), Philadelphia

Pennsylvania, USA

Author: Rozalia Mos

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