An advertisement for a trip in May 2022 to Israel and the West Bank

WASHINGTON (RNS) Critics who raised objections to a video at a Smithsonian exhibit that showed ants crawling on a crucifix are unsatisfied with new policies intended to prevent future controversies.
The Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents advisory panel on Monday (Jan. 31) issued a report calling for greater preparation on exhibits that could prove culturally sensitive.

Bill Donohue, the president of the New York-based Catholic League, who was among the most visible critics, believes the report is a “smoke screen” even though the video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz was removed.

“There has not been a single person associated with the Smithsonian who has indicated Christian sensibilities have been offended,” Donohue said.

The three-person advisory panel was tasked with reviewing the Smithsonian’s exhibition planning strategies as well as the museum’s role as a national cultural institution, according to the report.

“Culturally sensitive exhibitions should be previewed from a diverse set of perspectives,” the report reads. “Thus, we urge that there be a diversity of perspectives brought to bear in advance.”

It also emphasized that the review should occur during “pre-decisional exhibit planning.”

The panel presented its findings at the first meeting of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents since controversy arose about the video, “A Fire in My Belly,” which was a part of a larger exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”

The video in the display of gay portraits was pulled on Nov. 30, almost immediately after Donohue’s office and some Republicans on Capitol Hill raised concerns.

Supporters say the film, which has since been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, conveys the suffering and pain felt by Wojnarowicz and others at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Donohue is also concerned that the language of the report allows for future censorship of religious materials.

“They are giving themselves wiggle room,” Donohue said. “They are leaving the door open to censor that kind of art they find offensive.”

The report contains other recommendations for the Smithsonian, including not changing an exhibit after it is open without heavy consideration, and following current Smithsonian directives for exhibition planning more closely.

“Exhibiting units shall collect and analyze information about the experiences and expectations of visitors and others during the exhibition planning phases,” the directive states.

Share This