Museums and The Paradox of Tolerance

Dec 18

Eastern State Penitentiary | Photo Rob Hashern

Tegan Kehoe, Exhibit and Education Specialist at Boston's Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation, argues that museums need to choose whether all ideas should be expressed equally. This is an extract from her chapter, 'Museums and the Paradox of Tolerance' in our new book The State of Museums: Voices from the Field.

ABOVE: The Big Graph, an installation at Eastern State Penitentiary, confronts visitors with statistics on the size and racial disparities of the US prison population. The museum's interpretive strategy is informed by the site's history as a prison. Photo: Rob Hashern.

OVER THE PAST HALF CENTURY, much of the museum field has embraced reimagining the ideal museum from a temple to a forum. Interpretation is not just handed down to the masses; instead, one hopes that visitors bring their own backgrounds, formulate their own interpretations, and exchange ideas. Being a forum for ideas means that museums need to choose whether all ideas can be expressed equally.

Philosopher Karl Popper discussed whether all ideas should be welcome and equal in society, outlining what’s known as the paradox of tolerance. In 1945 he released an anti-totalitarian book called The Open Society and Its Enemies. The paradox, from a footnote in this work, states that if a society tolerates all ideas, people are free to use their society’s freedoms to further bigotry and systemic injustice. Popper claimed, “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” Thus, the way to maintain a tolerant society is to be tolerant of all ideas except intolerance. While museums are not societies, if they want to be forums for ideas and for our communities, museums should embrace all ideas except intolerant ones, while looking carefully at what that means in a museum setting.

Applying the paradox to the everyday work of museums
To apply the paradox of tolerance to museum work, our field needs its own answer to what tolerating or not tolerating an idea looks like. 

Museums put their collections on figurative pedestals by putting them on literal pedestals. There’s a cultural expectation that displaying an object means the museum thinks it has value. Museums display art when it is excellent. Museums display archeological finds when they’re significant, rare, or beautiful (think of the Indiana Jones line, “It belongs in a museum!”). The reality of display decisions doesn’t always align with these expectations, but museums do need to remember that in many visitors’ eyes, museum displays elevate an object’s status. Most of the time, museums don’t and shouldn’t decide for the visitor whether something is important for good or bad reasons. But, the figurative museum pedestal gets tricky when the ideas evoked by an object are hateful, or privilege one group over another. If the interpretation doesn’t comment on that, it can look at best as if the museum considers the ideas value-neutral, alienating the people who are harmed. Applying the paradox of tolerance suggests that a museum’s institutional voice can be louder and more prescriptive when calling out intolerant ideas, and quieter and more open to disagreement the rest of the time.

Sometimes being attentive to word choice is all that’s needed to provide adequate context for an artifact. For example, naming the type of prejudice, describing a portrayal as misogynist, anti-Semitic, transphobic, etc., or using words like “caricature” get the point across tidily. It’s not helpful to call something “controversial” or “provocative” unless you actually mean controversial or provocative; they show up frequently as euphemisms for “prejudiced.” For providing context about an object, museums can consult style guides appropriate to the topic or culture being discussed, or general sources such as Conscious Style Guide. When the ideas around an object on display perpetuate an imbalance of power or an innocuous-seeming stereotype, being explicit about the cultural assumptions present can be powerful, as well.

Evaluate interpretation with an eye to tolerance
Making a museum welcoming to all and a forum for ideas requires critical examination of our decisions, our collections, and our biases and expectations. It requires museum staff to take a hard look at what ideas and habits we have picked up from popular culture, from our educational background, our parents, or our previous jobs, that might be exclusionary or reinforce power structures. It requires museums to look at themselves as workplaces, examining how pay, recruiting practices, and organizational culture contribute to a paucity of different perspectives. It requires us to evaluate museum interpretation with an eye to tolerance, and to more rigorous standards that come up in the work of trying to create positive change in our communities.

It can be easy to stop doing the necessary critical thinking, or do a lot less of it, while putting out day-to-day fires like tight deadlines and even tighter budgets. It’s a similar phenomenon to coming back from a conference and then not using the exciting new ideas that had charged us up. The paradox of tolerance isn’t a substitute for the harder work of addressing long-term injustices in our institutions and our communities. But, it can make the analysis a little easier and more comfortable (even if the conclusions we draw from this self-examination are uncomfortable), so this kind of analysis can be a bigger part of museums’ daily work. Tolerance is a decision-making framework that museums can use to work towards being meaningful, non-partisan forums in a politically charged world.

View contents listing and and full details of 
The State of Museums: Voices from the Field.




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