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Museum Exhibit Standards

Adopted by the Society for History in the Federal Government Executive Council, January 8, 1997; the National Council on Public History Executive Council, March 30, 2000; the Organization of American Historian's Executive Council, April 2, 2000; the American Historical Association Council, January 4, 2001; and Medical Museums Associations, April 19, 2001. Revised by AHA Professional Division and approved by AHA Council, January 5, 2017.

2017 Museum Exhibit Standards. updated

1999 Museum Exhibit Standards. article

1997 Committee Report  

Background on the Development and Adoption of the Museum Exhibit Standards

In 1994, the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, began work on an exhibit for a 1995 commemoration of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, featuring the forward fuselage of the B-29 aircraft that dropped the bomb, the Enola Gay.  Members of World War II veterans organizations objected to the exhibit script, which explored arguments about whether to drop the bomb and the impact made by the bomb on the civilian population. Veterans organizations believed that this script did not sufficiently recognize the veterans’ sacrifices and American military achievements in a just war.  Throughout 1994 the veterans groups made their case to the press, the Smithsonian Board, and Congress.  On January 30, 1995, the chair of the Smithsonian Board of Regents announced that the exhibit would be cancelled and the forward fuselage of the Enola Gay exhibited with only a plaque identifying it and its crew.  The director of the National Air and Space Museum resigned his post after Congressional pressure.

Leaders of historical and museum professional societies lamented that no set of standards existed that museums could use to guide them and protect curators who worked on historically sensitive exhibits.  In October 1994, the executive council of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) called for the creation of a task force with representatives from historical societies and museums to address relevant questions and produce some sort of document that would protect curators.  In May 1995, the OAH secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to fund the task force, and it began meeting in December 1995. Members came from major historical societies and from large museums, and Victoria Harden’s paper, attached here, documents the efforts of the task force.  Only the representative from SHFG arrived with instructions from a committee of SHFG members; others spoke for their societies and institutions from their own beliefs and experiences. 

The task force eventually disbanded without producing any document, but the SHFG committee met on its own and produced a set of “Museum Exhibit Standards,” which was adopted by the SHFG Executive Committee on January 8, 1997.  Subsequently, these standards were adopted by the National Council on Public History Executive Council on March 30, 2000; the Organization of American Historian Executive Council on April 2, 2000; the American Historical Association Council on January 4, 2001; and the Medical Museums Association on April 19, 2001.

According to Victoria Harden, chair of the SHFG Exhibit Standards Committee, “One always hears about how a committee can function as more than the sum of its parts, and the members of this committee came together on Saturdays, sometimes in cold weather, and did just that.  It was perhaps the most effective committee I have ever been a part of.”

The members of the SHFG committee that produced the Museum Exhibit Standards

Bruce Bustard, Exhibits Branch, National Archives and Records Administration

Rebecca Hancock Cameron, U.S. Air Force History Office, Center for Air Force History

Victoria Harden, Chair, Historian, NIH, and Director, Stetten Museum

Paula Johnson, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Richard Mandel, Independent scholar, Historical contractor

Betty C. Monkman, Office of the Curator, The White House

Dwight T. Pitcaithley, Chief Historian, National Park Service

J. Samuel Walker, Historian, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Cecilia Wertheimer, Curator, Historical Resource Center, Bureau of Engraving and Printing


Society for History in the Federal Government
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