Tony Bennett’s “Civic Seeing: Museums and the Organization of Vision” is probably the bleakest, scariest, most depression-inducing article I’ve read as a graduate student. This probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since it rises out of that “great” Fouccoultean tradition that depicts the museum as a big, scary, manipulative mega-monster intent on rendering a Stepford citizenry under the guise of “civic virtue.”
Here’s a basic example of what I'm talking about, one of many that could be culled from Bennett's article: In a section discussing the exhibition of difference in the museum space, Bennett contends that museums have “been places for making differences – whether natural, social, or cultural – visible.” He deflates the implicit (liberal) optimism of that assertion with a sudden reversal: “They have done so, however, mainly to and for a controlling point of view which, while theoretically universal, has, in fact . . . been restricted to” (p. 278) a privileged few--usually heterosexual, middle-class, white men.
Why, then, should we public historians even engage in the act of museum exhibition? If contemporary museum culture is controlled by this Fouccoultean carceral manipulation, shouldn’t we just give up on museums? Or is there an antidote to “seeing”?
Tammy Stone-Gordon offers one possible solution in her book Private History in Public: the community exhibit. Described by Stone-Gordon as exhibits that "provide individualized perspectives not only on the history of the local community but also on community views of the larger world" (p. 23), community exhibits are "indigenous" projects that provide the curating community with a form of agency. Claims Stone-Gordon: the community "is active in its construction of its history."
Stone-Gordon buttresses her descriptive claims with an example from the Homewood Historical Society. She quotes Elain Egdorf, one of the historical society's founding members, who claims that she didn't like history in school, because it was all about memorization. But as she became involved in "local history," she "realized that history is you and me; history is all of us, is what's happening today. . . . Everyone is important in some way to the fabric of their town. [We need to] wake up people to the diversity we have here, in ethnicity, economics, housing, architecture" (p. 40). In crafting this simple methodology of inclusion and interpretation for her local museum, Egdorf counters the claims made by Bennett and, perhaps, provides an antidote for "Seeing."
Take that, Tony Bennett!