I’ve just returned from the Western Museums Association annual conference in sandy, sunny San Diego. Two experiences there reminded me that museum exhibitions are powerful forces in educating the public and, perhaps, even making our world a better place.
The first was a keynote lecture by Bob Welch, non-fiction writer and columnist for The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR). Witty and profound, Welch’s comments were inspiring. He described the journey he took in researching his latest book about the first American nurse killed in Europe after D-Day, a Polish immigrant named Frances Slanger. She overcame widespread prejudices against immigrants in 1920s Boston and proved to her teachers that she was smart enough to become a nurse.Through sheer determination, Slanger also overcame military objections to her near-sightedness and was allowed to serve on the front lines in World War II. To Welch (and myself), the preservation and thoughtful presentation of history inspires people; it fuels imagination and creativity and helps us avoid repeating our mistakes. History is full of valuable lessons.
The other experience that gave me pause was a visit to Beloved Daughters: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. The exhibition features MacArthur Fellow and human rights “artist-activist” Fazal Sheikh’s large-scale, black-and-white portraits of girls and women in India. While the photographs were visually haunting, reading the text accompanying the images felt like being kicked in the gut, over and over. Photographed in orphanages, the young girls had been abandoned by their families, who wanted boys instead. Teenage girls became prostitutes, trapped in their circumstances with almost no means of escape, and young wives became victims of spousal abuse as conflicts over dowries or the inability to produce male children drove husbands to physical violence. Without a doubt, this was an eye-opening exhibition, and I’ve seen quite a lot of shows. But Beloved Daughters was the most moving exhibition I’ve ever seen.
--Ed Liskey, Scheduling and Exhibitor Relations Coordinator