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Blame the Bloggers: Clough Briefs Museum Lawyers on “Hide/Seek” Controversy

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Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, addressing attendees this morning at “Legal Issues in Museum Administration,” a three-day course in Washington organized by American Law Institute-American Bar Association (screenshot of webcast)

At today’s opening of the 39th annual course for museum attorneys (inside and outside counsel) on the subject of “Legal Issues in Museum Administration,” Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough didn’t mention the “Hide/Seek” exhibition controversy in his prepared keynote speech.

But he did field a question about whether, with hindsight, he would have handled this controversy differently (something that he also addressed in his Huffington Post interview with me).

He told the attendees in Washington that Smithsonian curators and directors had met with him last week about the issues raised by “Hide/Seek,” but the discussion, as he described it, was more about image that substance: The main concern appears to have been the problems posed by the 24/7 news cycle that has been instigated by pesky bloggers.

Here’s the full text of his remarks on this topic:

Given a second chance, I would have taken a little more time. But I think the decision was the right decision. The Smithsonian is an institution that is an instrument of Congress. That’s a very important thing. It’s an institution that needs to engage people across the board. If you’re a public museum in a city, you have an audience. The Smithsonian’s audience is a nationwide audience. And so I think it was the right decision. I stand by that decision.

At the same time, we recognize that the Smithsonian is a place, especially as we move in new directions, where we’re going to have controversy over our exhibitions. In fact, last week, we had a meeting with our curators and our senior curators and our directors to talk about how we respond in an era where things move so quickly.

We’re a big, somewhat ponderous institution. In making a decision at the Smithsonian, you have to consult as many people as you can. And that takes time, whereas the bloggers go to work right away. They can heighten and inflame an issue [emphasis added] and it can get out of control before you ever have a chance to think seriously about what you’re going to do.

So we’re thinking as an institution about how we deal with controversy and how we can be responsive to that controversy. I think we’re coming up with some good ideas. I don’t know that we’ll have a perfect answer, but we know that these controversies won’t go away.

To be fair to those of us who “inflame issues” in the blogosphere, even the more sluggish mainstream media can (and sometimes do) post their reports and commentary quickly on the web. The Smithsonian needs to have a sound basis for what it does and be prepared to articulate its thinking forcefully and promptly when questions arise, if it doesn’t want these issues to spiral “out of control.”

Clough’s big mistake, to my mind, was not his decision to remove the putative Wojnarovicz video (actually, a curatorial concoction) from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition. He erred in ducking public comment on his actions for a month and a half after the controversy erupted and got “out of control.” You don’t need meetings with curators, directors and outside interest groups to figure that one out. Clough’s decision to refrain from publicly addressing this controversy for a month and a half surely absolves bloggers and the 24/7 news cycle of getting ahead of him.

It was Clough who fed the controversy by doing too little, too late to persuasively address it head-on, perhaps in the hope that it would just go away.

an ArtsJournal blog