When do we edit participation?

Last week, in honor of Bastille Day, we opened the PlayHouse Art Room to the public with a flag-making activity.

flag-prompt edited

We saw a range of flags created by kids and parents. As I share them, imagine some music playing, something vaguely patriotic but from an imaginary or unknown country.

There were French-inspired flags:

french flag edited

There were PlayHouse flags:

love playhouse flag edited

There were flags celebrating visitors’ cultural heritage:

german amaerican flag edited

And there were flags with indecipherable symbolism (indecipherable to me, but perhaps the flag makers had a very clear intent!):

triangle flag edited


And then there was this:

confederate flag edited

The imaginary music screeches to a halt.

And here comes this week’s question: When do we edit participation?

I left the wall of flags up in the Art Room, the walls of which currently hold the evidence of about five different projects.

flag wall edited 2

But those Confederate flags (which, I am guessing, are by a parent and child)? I took them down.

The joy and difficulty of open-ended participatory activities is that we cannot predict or control visitor contributions. This should be a good thing: museums are a safe and neutral space to share one’s ideas. But what happens when some contributors offer ideas that are anathema to one’s own beliefs?

On the one hand, nothing sparks dialogue like a politically charged symbol. If I left it up, would parents and children who happened to see it engage in a meaningful conversation about the power of a flag, the historical weight of the Confederate flag, recent events in South Carolina, and whether or why some symbols should be retired?

On the other hand, would leaving it up make it seem like the PlayHouse endorses the Confederate flag? How would the public interpret our willingness to display this symbol?

A number of museum professionals are calling for museums to take on difficult issues, particularly those related to societal racism – one of the most important challenges facing us today. Linda Norris recently published a post encouraging museums to take on the Confederate flag and other similarly difficult issues. Gretchen Jennings called for museums to become place-makers: “How can your anchor institutions [museums] wield soft power [meaning act as influences in the development of their communities]?” But that same post draws on and cites Gail Lord: “the inclusion of multiple voices is critical to achieving soft power.”

Participatory museum culture, and the inclusion of multiple voices, means that we must allow and listen to voices we disagree with. Are we ready for that? I worry that by taking down visitor-contributed Confederate flags I have shown that I am not. But could I really leave them up?


7 thoughts on “When do we edit participation?

  1. Thanks for sharing this Rebecca–I had a similar situation a couple years ago while prototyping and someone left an offensive comment about Obama, and like you, I took it down, and then really struggled with whether that was the right thing to have done. A part of me thinks that we run the risk, when we do, of only encouraging participation of people who agree with us; but like you, I didn’t want to be seen in any way as encouraging that point of view. I think it gets at how hard all of this is–I believe that we need to take on tough issues, but the how we do that is still unfolding. I suspect though, it’s all about dialogue. I really appreciate real life situations that drive the conversation forward, so I’ll continue to ponder how we can best do this.

  2. This is a fascinating question and a complex situation. I’m still thinking a lot about the role of a museum with social issues. Right now I feel that museums need to strive to be neutral territory and play the role of asking the questions and facilitating the dialog without taking a specific stance or position. I probably would have left the confederate flag up because the visitor seems to be expressing a viewpoint without attacking anyone. The other situation about Obama sounds more like an actual attack, which should not be tolerated.

    It might be a good idea to formulate with staff a short policy statement about your museum’s philosophy, what you will and won’t allow and then post that in the building and on the website.

    Looking forward to hearing other’s thoughts and experiences about this – it’s a tough one.

    • I’m intrigued by the idea of a policy statement. One of our stated core values – stated on the home page of our website – is that the PlayHouse is committed to equity. We add, “The PlayHouse is for everyone, regardless of income, abilities, or background.” I would like to distinguish the Confederate flag as a symbol that jeopardizes the equity of others. But the point this visitor is trying to make is that in his or her perspective it is NOT that.

      I think what I’m trying to say is that even a policy statement might be open to interpretation, and might depend on whether one understands the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate / discrimination / slavery, or a part of history. When I shared this post on Facebook someone mentioned the flags of the Soviet Union and Rhodesia as flags that should be similarly rejected. It’s a slippery slope…

      • Yes, Rebecca, it is a slippery slope. It wouldn’t be that difficult to find parts of the world that would view the USA flag as a symbol of oppression, colonialism, hate, etc. North Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind as possibilities .

        I’d say this is an opportunity for your museum to help your community explore how they feel about this question. I don’t know if you could have left it up and found a way to facilitate a dialog because I don’t know your staffing and volunteer options, or your physical lay out to create a companion activity.

        If you want a policy that enforces your own view of symbols beyond the policy you already have than that should probably be a discussion to have with your Board. I think it’s interesting that this came up in a northern state. I’m really glad you’re thinking about it and exploring opinions!

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  4. Very important discussion and as everyone has noted, not easy. As Susan, I have wondered too would Native Americans justly object to the American flag that was carried by the military that expropriated their land and forced them onto reservations? But then, I recollect being at a Powwow in Oklahoma a bunch of years ago when the final dance was led by two “warriors” dressed in US military fatigues, carrying military issue-type weapons and carrying the American Flag.

    I am concerned too that by eliminating such controversial symbols, we pretend that we live in some sort of post-racial nirvana. So that if we sanitize the presentation, then we sanitize the discussion – and the only place the flag will be discussed is at KKKesque events. I fear too such censorship plays into the conspiracy theory of the racists on revisionist history instead of having the discussion front and center.

    I reflect that the Holocaust Museum does not seem to shy away from presenting the controversial symbols of hate. Interesting possible parallel.

    I look forward to a continued discussion on such issues.

  5. I would have left it up for several reasons: 1) Because I don’t think we should edit what visitors are saying unless it is hate speech; (2) because it’s a thought-provoking perspective that I was surprised to see and others would likely feel that way too.

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