Exhibitionism: a quick guide for the offended
The shirt, which was produced to promote the heavy metal band Cradle of Filth and shows a nun masturbating as well as the slogan JESUS IS A CUNT, was banned from New Zealand in 2008. Canterbury museum's curators got special permission to show it - in a secluded, adults-only room - as part of an exhibition called T Shirts Unfolding. The museum wants its visitors to think about the limits to freedom of speech, and about the functions of censorship. The YMCA and co argue that the T shirt is offensive, and that museums should not display offensive objects.
I've been wondering when the organisers of the campaign against the T shirt will turn their attention to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. On its second floor, in a room dedicated to the Second World War, Auckland's museum displays two of the most offensive objects of all time - Hitler's swastika flag, and his demented book Mein Kampf. Both objects help the museum tell the story of World War Two.
But almost every object in a museum is likely to be offensive to someone, if that someone has mistaken exhibition for endorsement. Besides its swastika flag and commie newspaper, the Auckland museum displays artefacts from dozens of religions and relics from a series of wars.
On the museum's ground floor, for instance, masks and drums associated with Papuan religious rites rest a short walk from a massive and austere sculpture of Kave, a goddess from Nuku'oro atoll, a carving of the Madonna and child by an early Maori convert to Catholicism, and a Samoan-language Bible published by a Protestant church. Relics of the religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt advertise their creeds upstairs. In the room of the museum devoted to the New Zealand Wars, the Union Jack and the banners of Maori nationalist movements confront each other, as speakers play recordings of bugle calls and haka.
We can only appreciate myriad and contradictory exhibits like these if we accept that a museum is a space where different aspects of and ideas about the past are allowed to manifest themselves, and where visitors, rather than curators, have the responsibility for forming final interpretations.
When I worked at the Auckland museum the institution mounted a major show about Charles Darwin’s life and work. Darwin offended the religious views of some visitors. I remember, as well, the way that some veterans of the Vietnam War were offended by the museum’s coverage of that conflict. Those vets didn’t like the museum mentioning that the war had created considerable public debate and protest in New Zealand.
They may have been offended, and their views may have been shared by hundreds or thousands of other Aucklanders, but neither the religious folks who objected to Darwin nor the Vietnam veterans who objected to references to anti-war protests should have had the right to intervene and alter or shut down the museum’s displays. A museum’s duty is to the truth, and the truth about the past is complex, and polemicists speaking on behalf of a nebulous community have too little patience with complexity.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]