"I ask this question to our Museum Studies Masters students every year, and last month put it to our new Bachelor of Arts and Sciences students. Despite the difference in the age, background and interests of these two groups, the reaction is the same – anger and horror. I am playing devil’s advocate in these debates, but my own opinion is yes, there are circumstances when everyone benefits from museums lying.
The lectures I discuss this in focus on object interpretation, and I use a tiger skull as a prop for discussing how to decide what information to include in labels. The choice of a tiger isn’t important – I just need something to use as an example I can attached real facts about natural history and conservation to, but I spend the two hours talking about tigers.
At the end of the lecture I reveal that the skull is in fact from a lion. Everything else I told them about tigers is true. Did it matter that I lied?
Lying about what objects are?
Museums surely can’t lie about an object’s identification, right? But if a museum didn’t have any tigers, is it reasonable that they can’t talk about tigers? Let’s say a museum was putting on an exhibition about Indian wildlife. It would be absurd to run that exhibition without a tiger*. Why not just use a lion skull and label it “tiger”?
There are anatomical differences between tiger and lion skulls, but they are slight. Any normal visitor reading labels about tigers wouldn’t know the difference, or need to know. There is no question that a museum shouldn’t deceive an academic researcher studying the specimens, but in a display for the general public, could this lie be acceptable?
My students say that this calls into doubt everything they have been told – how can they trust anything? “Museums are supposed to repositories of knowledge” (however old fashioned you might think that notion to be). Think of it another way. Some skulls in the Grant Museum are labelled gibbon, but we don’t know which species.
In an exhibition about Indian wildlife, would it be lying, or wrong, to use one of these gibbons to represent hoolock gibbons (an Indian species)? It probably isn’t a hoolock gibbon, but it doesn’t seem as wrong as the tiger vs. lion “lie”, does it? But it’s the same as if that skull was just identified as “big cat”. The students say that you can still tell the facts about tigers, but at the bottom of the label say “this is actually a lion”. I think that would look very weird and confuse the visitor.
I asked this on Twitter and two responses said “If you need to lie about the object to tell the story, the story isn’t true.” I disagree” (read more).