A couple of weeks ago a friend and I went to the Ohio Historical Center to see a temporary exhibit called “Controversy: Pieces You Don’t Normally See.” On exhibit were five controversial items: a Klu Klux Klan robe, the electric chair from the old Ohio Penitentiary, a sheepskin condom, a crib-bed cage used to restrain patients from a state mental institution, and a mitt used to keep children from sucking their thumbs. Each item was display in its own little area, so only one object can be seen at a time. Each object was on display so it could be viewed all the way around, with lights focused on each object. The walls were dark gray, and each object had a little sign telling what the item was, where it came from, and when it was made or used. The walls and stands were all dark gray.
At the end of the exhibit, images of each item were on overhead projectors and visitors could write comments about them. On the wall above the projections was a Benjamin Disraeli quote, which I believe was this: “Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power.” There were also scrapbooks in this room that gave more context for each item, and there were postcards for visitors to write their comments on the exhibit and hang up on a clothesline. Once you stepped out of the room, there were many little cone-shaped viewers that had different things in them. I remember one I looked at said something like “Is this part of Ohio’s history?”
This exhibit is an interesting concept. I think it worked well, and it is a good way to get people thinking about history. Many people think that history is a linear projection, where progress is always being made, while many think everything was better in the past. The exhibit definitely shatters the idea that everything was better in the past. Some items demonstrated that some things that we think of as modern, such as the debate about birth control, are not new. I think the only thing I wish was demonstrated more is that history is not always a tale of progress and things always improve over time. One example would be Nadir of Race Relations from around 1880 up to around 1940. It is an uncomfortable idea that things do not always get better in history, and I still find it disconcerting, and frankly, rather scary. I think the Benjamin Disraeli quote is rather fitting though, “Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power.”