While reading Robert Janes’s Museums in a Troubles World I was reminded of a story I had seen earlier that morning. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer compared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Hitler as a way to justify American bombardment of a Syrian airfield, following Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Specifically, Spicer implied that Assad went where even Hitler dared not go—using chemical weapons on his own citizens. Numerous people on social media and from the press immediately fought back against this claim, including CNN’S Jake Tapper who suggested, “Sean, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it’s just a few blocks away from the White House. Perhaps a visit’s in order.”
What struck me about this comment was that the museum was being invoked as an authority on objective, historical truth. In today’s political environment, with the constant cries of ‘Fake news’ the truth has become more commonly accepted as political, just as much or even more so than it is considered objective or factual. That Tapper referred Spicer to a museum, rather than a textbook, or a documentary, or any other potential source of historical knowledge, is a sign that museums are seen (or have the potential to be seen) as a source of objective, apolitical truth, which is especially meaningful in the current post-truth political environment.
On the whole, Janes advocates for museums to fulfill a much more explicitly political purpose than truth-telling, but given that the book was written in 2009, I would be interested to hear his thoughts on the role of the museum as a guardian of truth in the current political environment in the United States. I would also say—and this is a point that Janes makes—that engagement, and pushing information or activism into the community, and into the public sphere, is a necessary next step—and a vital one to break beyond the information bubble museums might otherwise reinforce.