I am Rachel Coats, the 2011 Public History intern at the Lewes Historical Society. I will be writing several blog posts this summer, and my first topic discusses why museums collect and display artifacts that may cause controversy. Many people do not like to be reminded about sensitive topics from the past because it makes them uncomfortable. However, history should reveal the past to the public, whether it is good or bad. An example of a controversial topic is the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Some museums have displayed limited historical information on certain topics due to controversy and to society’s reactions. From 1995-1998, the Enola Gay Exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum had a very cautious approach because of the criticism of the cancellation of the Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II. This exhibit was going to present the decision to drop the bomb and Japan surrendering, but there were too many complaints on the topic. Therefore, the Enola Gay exhibit did not have a lot of historical information. Exhibit writer-editor David Romanowski said that it would evoke a lot of emotions and memories, but an artifact with that importance cannot be ignored. I agree that something with so much significance should not have hindered information. The Last Act exhibit should not have been cancelled in my opinion because its content would have contained so much history. It is wrong to not discuss or to not exhibit something because of its content, especially if it involves life-changing history.
In Lewes’s case, Delaware pediatrician Dr. Earl Bradley was charged with serial molestation of 103 children. This case shocked those in Lewes and Milford, where he closed an office in 2005 after police investigated him. The earliest video recordings date back to 1998, which is unbelievable for residents in Sussex County because the horrific acts were occurring for at least twelve years without anyone knowing. There has not been a case in the Lewes area that has been horribly un-thinkable as this one. Dr. Bradley will not be forgotten anytime soon in the Lewes community.
For historians or anyone who has a museum-related career, collecting items is a large part of keeping history alive. The Lewes Historical Society has the original drawing by Abraxas Hudson of Dr. Bradley in court, which was shown in the Cape Gazette. The drawing was collected so that hundreds of years from now, people will come across the item and can understand the story behind it. Many people want to forget about what happened, but museums collect items so that the history behind it will always be remembered. Regardless of how terrible a person, story, or situation may be, historical facts cannot be avoided.
. Graphite on paper. Abraxas Hudson, 2010. Gift of the Artist, 2010.35 © Abraxas Hudson”]Whether a controversial item is in storage or is on display, it is under special care so that people will learn from the past. In 2011, no one in Sussex County has forgotten about Dr. Bradley, but 100 years from now he could easily be forgotten if museums like The Lewes Historical Society did not keep items related to him. If the history is passed on, people are aware of the un-thinkable crimes that can occur right under their noses; which can cause parents to be more cautious about who is around their children rather than automatically trusting them because of their status or job. Something that is difficult to discuss should not be avoided, or else the importance of the story will be lost. Families in the Lewes area should not forget about the Bradley case so that something like this will not happen again. The case was so horrific that it garnered national attention.
For many families, the case of Dr. Bradley was life changing. Even those who were not personally affected by Dr. Bradley could not fathom that something so awful occurred in their community. Historical societies or museums hold onto collections that have a controversial history so that others can learn from it. As long as an exhibit is not opinionated, society has the right to all details of history as long as it is not confidential. Joshua Dudley, Senior Designer for Ralph Appelbaum Associates, believes that the text in an exhibit should not have subtle points and should not avoid uncomfortable facts or ideas. If museums did not exhibit controversial topics, so much of vital history would be erased from people’s minds. One reason that historical facts have so much importance is so that others can be educated on its historical background.
It will make them understand other people’s mistakes and will keep them from happening again, such as the case of Dr. Earl Bradley.