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EXHIBIT REVIEW – Controversy

The Ohio Historical Society’s exhibition Controversy – Pieces You Don’t Normally See is not your typical exhibition. With only five artifacts on view, and minimal interpretation, this exhibition challenges visitors to shape their own opinions about some of the most controversial artifacts in the museum’s collection.

The exhibit is also minimalist in design. The walls are painted dark gray or black, with the name of each object written in large white block letters on the wall. There is only one artifact displayed in each gallery. A small label with a brief description sits in the corner of each space, far from the artifact itself, usually only providing the date and location where the object was used. The visitor is guided through each space by the layout of the galleries. There is no choice to make. You enter each space and exit into the next space, gallery after gallery.

The introduction to Controversy asks, “What if we didn’t tell you what to think?” It challenges the visitor to view the artifacts as curators do, as raw history. The staff asks visitors to draw their own conclusions based only on what they see. The exhibition’s brochure says they want to let the artifacts “speak for themselves.”

The artifacts displayed are definitely powerful enough to achieve the staff’s vision for the visitor’s experience. They include a Ku Klux Klan robe, a sheepskin condom from the 1860s, an adult “crib bed” used to restrain mentally ill patients in the 1870s, Ohio’s last electric chair with its control panel, and a “thumb mitt” used to prevent children from sucking their thumbs.

Each artifact is displayed with minimal barriers and is brightly lit, in contrast to the dark space that surrounds it. The artifacts “come to life” when displayed this way, and evoke emotions that might not otherwise rise to the surface if they were presented differently. The dramatic staging of each piece creates a significantly different feeling than if they were displayed side by side in an ordinary gallery setting.

After viewing each of the five artifacts, the last gallery provides a space for visitors to share their thoughts and reactions to each piece. A series of five overhead projectors allows visitors to write comments about each artifact which are then enlarged on the wall. It is a wonderful example of the power of a “low tech” interactive.

The last gallery also includes several copies of the “Curator’s Notebook,” which contains all the supporting information for each artifact that you’d expect to find in a more traditional exhibition. The notebooks contain research and photos to help visitors place each item in context.

There is an additional entrance fee of $5 to view the exhibition. The museum also requires that visitors under the age of 18 be accompanied by an adult.

Although this thought-provoking exhibition is scheduled to close soon, it is the first in a series of controversial exhibitions planned at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus.

The author did not pay admission to see this exhibition. She was attending a meeting at the Ohio Historical Society on a day when the museum was closed. Museum staff offered the meeting participants a behind-the-scenes tour of the new exhibitions on view, including Controversy.

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