I curated a museum exhibit about Censorship

I had been working as Student Exhibitions Coordinator at the Wright Museum of Art, in Wisconsin, as well as doing a degree in Education & Museum Studies.

The museum invited me to curate an exhibit about censorship.

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I posed the question What is censorship?

I wrote: If “freedom of speech” is the ability to speak without censorship, then “freedom of expression” defines what art is. 

Censorship, however, refers to how art is modified, repressed or removed due to political interactions with the art or artist during the public processes of publication or exhibition. This exhibit explores the different ways in which art has been censored over time, and how artists have responded to censorship.

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I explored the theme of censorship through different examples from the museum’s collection, with the aim of questioning the audience’s reactions. Here are some of the highlights from the exhibition.

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Freedom of the Press

This piece, La Prensa (“The Press”) by Franklin Boggs is a comment on censorship in Argentina. In 1951, President Juan Perón placed government control over the previously independent newspaper La Prensa. This act removed the freedom of the press and was intended to silence those opposed to the Perón government.

Boggs once had his own art censored, when he worked as a war artist-correspondent for Abbott Laboratories in 1944. One of his war-time paintings originally featured a naked man, but he was told to change it. According to Boggs: “…they said, We can’t have any nakedness in this series of paintings. I thought, That’s weird. You can kill people, but you can’t show one naked person. But, anyways, I put drawers on him to satisfy them, and it really upset me.”

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Behind the locked doors of this glass cabinet is a selection of books that have been banned in different places and at various times. The Locked Library is a reference to one of the lands described by Salman Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in which all books are kept under lock and key

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Behind the Curtain

The audience is invited to make the choice to view what is hidden behind the curtains; are the curtains protecting them from something shocking? Who is to judge what might be offensive to others? How would the artist feel about their work being censored in this way?

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The Stamp of Approval

In 1842, new government restrictions were put in place in Japan, banning illustrations of geisha, actors and courtesans. These had previously been popular subject matter for woodblock artists, and had sold well.  This new ban was part of a wider attempt to change the social landscape of Japan through limiting the cultural and economic growth of the lower classes.

In the past, local town administrators had the authority to enforce restrictions on publishing. Now, however, each woodblock print had to be examined by government censors. There literally was a stamp of approval, which can be seen in these examples. The stamps, or seals, came in various forms. Some show the name of the censor, while others say “approved” or “examined”. 

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A Brief History of Fig Leaves

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons (Genesis 3:7)

Fig leaves were not used to censor Western art until around 1500, but by 1550 the practice was commonplace. Their purpose was to shield viewers from what was then believed to be the impure and sinful human body. The depiction of genitals, buttocks and breasts was subsequently banned in church art.  In 1557, Pope Paul I V instituted the use of fig leaves as censorship.

Initially, only new art was meant to be censored. But a campaign of adding fig leaves to existing paintings and statues began in 1564, resulting in the mass censoring of visual art, which was carried out for hundreds of years.   

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So what do you think? Is censorship in art ever acceptable or necessary? What are the consequences? 

Curating a museum exhibit was an amazing experience. It is hard to believe that this was eight years ago, because it is still so fresh in my mind.

What does curating an exhibit involve?

Well, I had to choose the museum objects to include, and carried out research on them. I decided on the different sections of the exhibit, and designed the layout. I created all the text, and wrote the script for an interactive guided tour.  I hung everything on the walls, and positioned all the lighting. I was encouraged to do everything myself, which was an incredibly rewarding experience.

I will always be thankful to the Wright Museum of Art for giving me the opportunity.

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