Smithsonian Discusses How to Handle Potentially Controversial Exhibits in Future

A panel advising the Smithsonian Institution came together on Monday to discuss the process of how to handle disputes regarding controversial museum exhibits, after receiving national criticism last month for removing a controversial piece from a gay-themed exhibit.   The winter exhibit is titled “Hide/Seek: Different and Desire in American Portraiture” and is featured in the National Portrait Gallery through February 13. It contains over 100 pieces that explore LGBT themes in art history, including a video by the late gay artist David Wojnarowicz with a scene that depicted ants crawling on a crucifix. The video, created in 1987, is called “A Fire in My Belly” and is meant to symbolize the pain of the HIV/AIDS epidemic among the LGBT community. Pressure from religious and conservative groups—such as the Catholic League, which called it sacrilegious—caused Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough to remove the video shortly after its introduction, which subsequently raised disapproval and protests from art groups and free speech advocates.  The panel determined that unless there is an actual error, future exhibits should not undergo any changes after they are opened unless curators, museum directors, and members of the Smithsonian’s governing board have been consulted. The three-person panel consisted of Harvard University professor David Gergen, National Gallery of Art Director Earl A. Powell, and Smithsonian regent John McCarter. Overall, they were supportive of Clough’s decision to remove the video and praised his leadership in running the many museums and research complex that made up the Institution, but issued a six-page review with future recommendations

An image from the controversial video by artist David Wojnarowicz

  According to the Washington Post, McCarter said that the video “was not a mistake,” but that the mistake was not taking the time to explain the iconography of the art and its significance at the onset of the AIDS crisis in America. “The Smithsonian must encourage and provide a forum for dialogue on the important issues of the day … Topics such as immigration, race and ethnicity, religion, climate change, and sexual identity are within the scope of the curriculum and should lead to informed civic discourse,” stated the advisory panel’s report.  “We’re in the business of often doing exhibits that are about flashpoints in American history, flashpoints in global culture,” added Patricia Q. Stonesifer, the chair of the board of regents. Although the board watched the video, it did not vote on whether it should have been removed. Clough continued to stand by his decision, but suggested that he acted too quickly. “I think we learned from this experience,” he said.  GLAAD will continue to monitor news coverage of this story, and encourages the Smithsonian Institution as well as other cultural institutions to remain inclusive of the LGBT community in its programs.