Why Is the Smithsonian Still Standing Behind Bill Cosby? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran an extensive preview of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is taking shape on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Although the museum won’t open its doors to the public for another six months, its curators’ decisions are already raising eyebrows. Another Times story examines the new museum’s plans to recognize Bill Cosby, entertainer and alleged serial rapist, for his contributions to the culture, without mentioning the accusations against him.

When it comes to Cosby, the Smithsonian Institution suffers from a serious blindspot.

Not eight weeks have passed since a different Smithsonian museum put the interests of the entertainer and his fans over those of his alleged victims and women more broadly. The Castle defended “Conversations,” an exhibition of Bill and Camille Cosby’s art collection that ran at the National Museum of African Art from November 2014 through January 2016—over which time dozens of women came forward claiming that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted them. Even after Cosby was arraigned in December 2015, which I noted at the time, the museum refused to budge in its support for “Conversations,” a show the Cosbys paid to install and which glorified Cosby as a family man.

The decision by the National Museum of African Art to back Cosby can at least be explained—if not very convincingly. Johnnetta Cole, the museum’s director, is a longtime friend of the Cosbys. The Smithsonian is gunshy about making tough decisions about art after a censorship crisis consumed the Castle in 2010. But there’s no problematic Cosby show hanging at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum isn’t open. What goes up is still an open question.

Including Cosby is several kinds of blind. This history is still unfolding—Cosby will face prosecution for at least one of his alleged crimes—so framing an incomplete story as finished is wrong. The new museum is under no obligation to showcase Cosby. After all, including Cosby guarantees that some other worthy visionary is excluded. While it is appropriate to recognize The Cosby Show and his other works as art, the Smithsonian museum is (again) spotlighting Cosby the entertainer, which is a separate consideration from his creations. (Amy Schumer addressed the need to separate the art from the artist in a skit about how the jury of public opinion is reluctant to even consider the accusations against Cosby.)

Before the new museum opens in September, the Smithsonian needs to resolve a question over how it handles Cosby, which is simultaneously a question over how it approaches its viewers. Presumably there is some limit to the Castle’s support of Cosby. If he were accused of sexually assaulting hundreds and hundreds of women, there’s no way the Smithsonian would give him space inside a museum celebrating black excellence. If Cosby were convicted of drugging and raping women, he would certainly get the boot.

Where does the Smithsonian draw the line? In fact, Cosby is accused of drugging and assaulting dozens of women—at least 46 women, of whom 35 have come forward with public accusations. He could be convicted of the alleged 2005 sexual assault of Andrea Constand: presumably that would be a bright line. Barring that, what if more details emerge about the “secret agreement” in which Cosby admitted to the alleged assault and avoided prosecution?

The National Museum of African American History and Culture intends to include materials celebrating Cosby with no mention of any the accusations that brought his career to an abrupt end. Not so much as an asterisk. This is how culture works to protect powerful alleged sexual predators.

One day, visitors will arrive at the National Museum of African American History and Culture who have never heard of Bill Cosby. Not today, of course, but many years in the future. They may learn all they know of the man from the Smithsonian exhibit materials about him. Meaning they might not get all the facts! At issue is more than the deep disregard for Cosby’s alleged victims and other women put into similar situations by their attackers. The Smithsonian shows a casual attitude toward the truth.