Smithsonian Censorship

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Jeff wades into our latest infantile attempt to cover our eyes:


This is not an issue about process; it is about a museum director's responsibility to protect his exhibits, and his curators, from political interference. Much of what Clough had to say was pablum: "We are not here to cause controversy," he told the Washington Post. "We are here to help people understand these issues that are important to our growth as a society." One could argue whether the Smithsonian's job is provoke controversy; I would say yes, of course -- museums that don't go out of their way to challenge settled and safe ideas become, over time, deeply boring museums. But put this aside: What is most troubling in these interviews is that Clough seems to be blaming this controversy not on intolerance, or the threat of censorship, but on his curators. 

It is the job of a museum head like Clough to hire the best possible curators and then let them curate. The two curators on this exhibit, David C. Ward and Jonathan Katz, two widely-recognized and admired academics, did a superior job. But Clough goes out of his way to question their judgment: "We didn't see that particular work through the lens of how someone else would perceive it -- as religious desecration," he told Lee Rosenbaum. "We could have done a better job there. And we will learn from that." And in the Post, he is quoted as saying, "We probably have to have a little more laser-like focus when we design our exhibitions."

It does seem that Clough is falling back a bit.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/01/smithsonian-censorship/69996/