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Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian
In 1982, the museum hosted a very successful traveling exhibit, The Art of the Muppets, in the Visitor Center. We were new to the world of traveling exhibits, and this one cost a lot. It was a very big financial risk, but we made the case to the board that the popularity of these characters among children and families would drive attendance. Initially, Muppets creator Jim Henson did not want the exhibit to go to a children's museum. He was more interested in the Muppets' appeal to adult audiences, but eventually he relented. The exhibit was unbelievably successful, a true blockbuster. We made the money back and then some. The profit was put into a special account earmarked for entrepreneurship.
A couple years later, Laurent de Brunhoff, the son of the very popular Babar author, Jean de Brunhoff, offered the museum an exhibit of his father's original drawings. Flush with the success of The Muppets, we signed a contract immediately. Although this was an "art only" exhibit, we thought we could "children's museum-ize" it and make it align with our hands-on museum model. Babar was much beloved and hugely popular. All of our children had read the books.
But Jeri Robinson came to us and said we couldn't do it. The pictures of black people in the stories were racist and stereotypical. Yes, we countered, but they were done in a different time. If you look at a lot of older children's classics, they're full of racism, sexism, etc. A heated museum-wide discussion ensued. We worried that, if we presented the exhibit, the black community would hate it, agitate against it, and we could be destroying all the credibility we'd worked so hard to build. Other museums had gotten into trouble with exhibitions about Africa recently. Into the Heart of Africa, presented by the Royal Ontario Museum, was lambasted as racist and shut down by the black community.
But I'd signed a contract. Passionate opinions, from pro to con, ranged across the museum. And, unusual for me, I didn't feel strongly one way or the other. It was the process that fascinated me. The conversation was about negotiation and compromise. How about if we used the exhibit as a teaching tool? What if we used it to teach reading or about the author's personal points of view or the history of racism in children's literature? But Jeri was adamant: if we showed racist drawings, they would make indelible pictures on young kids' minds. Mike and the board had agreed that it probably would be fine to present some version of the Babar exhibit, but they left the decision up to me.
I went home that night and gave it some thought and decided to cancel it. While I didn't agree that Babar was entirely objectionable, I thought about the risk of losing everything we had worked for in the community. Why ask for trouble? We worked hard to make the museum strong. It turns out the contract was not that hard to break and there was no financial penalty. And the deBrunhoff family wasn't all that crazy about "children's museum-izing" the exhibit anyway.
But the story continued. In 1986 I left the museum and taught at the Getty's MMI program, a training camp for rising museum professionals. They used the case study method, similar to methods used at Harvard Business School. I used the Babar story as a case study in decision-making. Students assumed the roles of Jeri, Elaine, Mike, the board, etc. They teased big questions out of it: What is censorship? What are the roles of leaders? In the end I told them about my real-life decision, and the class erupted. They were outraged. Thought this was the worst decision I could have made. I had pandered to the "tyranny of the minority." I had not protected artistic integrity. Since these were mostly art museum people, it felt like I'd violated some unfamiliar-to-me code.
I explained that at The Children's Museum, there were passionate opinions pro and con, and we listened respectfully to every one of them. We loved Babar, but we loved and respected Jeri, too. In the end, we realized we had to decide in a way that made us all feel right about it. We had to listen to our audiences—all of them.
Now, as a consultant, I work with a lot of museum directors who wish to respect the views of affected minority community members and don't believe that decisions in their favor represent the "tyranny of the minority," but who also don't want to cave into decisions that smell like censorship. I tell them, you can make any decisions you want, but a museum is a protected space and need not accept all artistic creations that offend members of the audience; it's your choice.