On this search to find a controversy that was not talk about in this week’s module, I came across a cringeworthy article published in in The Journal of Museum Education titled, “The Eye of the Beholder” by Janet Kamien, 1998 that speaks about the Endings: An Exhibit about Death and Loss exhibition at the Boston Children’s Museum in 1985. Just the idea of a museum exhibit on death and dying is a somber notion but for a children’s museum I found it quite funny because I wondered who would think of this as a good idea and why. Why place children in a space where they must face the hard realities of life and death when as Kamien says, “…three-year-olds do not perceive that a goldfish is dead unless it is floating belly up in a fishbowl.”

Written years 15 years later, Kamien’s article is her attempt to, “…outline the four potential problem stages in doing such exhibits involving staff, sponsors and funders, outside stakeholders, and finally visitors,”. She describes the development from idea to exhibition as a 5-year ordeal and the processes involved in getting funding and the community of Boston onboard for the ride. No, it may not seem like much of a controversy now, but it was a big deal in 1985, a time when our society was not as much as immersed in conversations about death and dying with children present in the room. 

I find it interesting that the author says they were blindsided by fundamental Christians considering there were a multitude of religious representation involved in the planning. According to Kamien, they worked hard to ensure no one was blindsided, “When institutions don’t know what’s coming, they can’t engage potential stakeholders before the fact, and they can’t prepare their staff, their visitors, or themselves for the controversy that may follow. They are blindsided.”

Maybe it was the way the fundamentalists responded that was so off-setting. “There was one exception – a very small, but quite vocal contingent of people of fundamentalist Christian belief. They wrote nastily to tell us to read our Bibles to see that there was no such thing as death!” Kamien goes on to say, “We were blindsided by them. The rabbiminister-priest contingent on the advisory council had never foreseen this objection, and neither had we.” It might be safe to say that 1985 presented public reactions for the time as out of the ordinary compared to the multiplicity of rants we hear every day all day from various sectors of society whenever a controversy arises. For the most part, Kamien says the Endings: An Exhibit about Death and Loss exhibition was well received by the community and even garnered national media attention.

The question I pose to you is how do you think a museum on death and dying will fare in our present society?

2 Thoughts to “1985 Exhibition on Death & Loss”

  1. Rose Thao

    Interesting post! I think a museum focused on death and dying will probably do quite well in modern society. This is mainly due to my observation that people are usually drawn to the unusual and a museum focused on death is just that – unusual. Of course, the question of how well the museum will do is also subject to the way it’s moderated and structured.

  2. Amy Gauger

    I think people would love a museum on death and dying, honestly. Look at how big the true crime genre is! Besides, there are always those who need to confront their own mortality, and this is a great way for them to do that in a safe place. What an interesting post, thank you!

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