Polly McKenna-Cress and Janet Kamien's Creating Exhibitions: Collaboration in the Planning, Development, and Design was a refreshing and insightful read – both in terms of format and discussion. The titular, overarching theme of collaboration spoke well to my limited personal experience with exhibits. Speaking strictly in terms of institution-based, physical exhibits, I've had the privilege of participating in two very disparate processes. The first was almost entirely independent; the only collaborative efforts involved were the copyediting of exhibit labels, the perusal of materials by a conservator, and assistance in acquisition and transportation. I was left to devise the narrative and themes, select materials, and craft labels and layout on my own, with very little oversight. That's not to say I could have done it entirely alone, but I enjoyed the freedom of conception and interpretation. In the other instance, I was one of a dozen people in an advisory group. In this instance, every person had a say in what went into the exhibit – so many voices clamoring to be heard, all with competing interests. Subliminally (and very conspicuously in my view), issues of demography, money and prestige served to make some voices louder than others, or at least be taken more seriously.
These experiences shaped my understanding of McKenna-Cress and Kamien's work. The benefits of collaboration – "varied points of view, interdisciplinary engagement, and innovation" (6) – only manifest within a just and equitable environment. Issues of team member bias and institutional respectability politics can serve to undermine the spirit of collaboration. There's a fine line between "fear of conflict" and destructive disagreement (13). As such, I was struck by the absence of a representative for community interests among the five essential team advocates that the authors described: institution, subject matter, visitor experience, design, and project/team (22). Surely community and institutional advocacies are often at odds. I'd imagine that one might try to subsume such a category under "visitor experience," but they're not the same thing. Communities are the (historical) subjects; visitors are the spectators. Though this book speaks to exhibit creation across disciplines (e.g., art, science, history), one cannot ignore the importance of community perspectives regardless of genre. Take, for instance, the Whitney Biennial controversy. Both curators were Asian American, so they were not at all exempt from racism and anti-Blackness (regardless of their tokenization as POC by their defenders). Likewise, having a single Black person "represent" community interests would be absurd and, regardless of that single person's input, the show would go on (with or without the white artist's Emmett Till painting). The issues of epistemic privilege and interpretation bias would go undebated and unresolved. The ideal of having different interests/advocacies be weighted – in that some categories would get more representatives than others – ensures such dialogues take place among a majority of community members, for instance, before reaching the public sphere for a free-for-all, where every (white) Tom, Dick and Mary thinks their opinions carry equal weight on an issue that most impacts Black people.
In this way, how might we negotiate the drive to integrate "multiple points of view" (79)? I think this issue extends beyond the institutional interests that the authors describe. We exist in a society, an intellectual culture that claims to treat all ideas as equal, even those that would deny the humanity and dignity of others. This masturbatory, "devil's advocate/argument for argument's sake" rhetoric is especially prevalent in academia. The devil doesn't need more advocates; he runs the world. In an exhibit about the history of slavery, would those who push to include "every perspective" ask us to offer up a sympathetic portrayal of slave owners? Surely it's already been done enough times for the benefit of Presidents and other glorified white people. The historical canon – what's taught to children as part of a program of intergenerational brainwashing – has so sanctified, so romanticized our past that we are made incapable of critical engagement. Even once we've established the supposedly radical ideological agenda I'm proposing, we find the elitist academics rearing their ugly heads yet again to accuse us of "dumbing down" the content (78). I myself am guilty of pretentious speech, and am endeavoring to learn how to write more like a public historian than an academic. My aim is versatility - much like this neuroscientist or Henry Gates. One's ability to adapt their content for a variety of audiences lends itself to one's own comprehension. In other words, if you're not capable of explaining what you do to a five year old, then perhaps you don't actually know what you're talking about, and are simply obfuscating with big words and affectation.