Should We Tell the Whole Truth?


Fox and NBC have both posted this article about the Smithsonian African American History museum creating an exhibit about Bill Cosby’s successes and influence in the African American Community. His rape accusers are up in arms about this, as they believe the museum is deliberately ignoring the situation Cosby has recently been in.

This brings up the question: Are museums responsible for telling every grimy detail, or is it up to interpretation? I think it’s safe to say that we all have a love for Cosby, from the Cosby show or his way of making us all want a puddin’ pop. Likewise, the accusations hit many of us hard.

The problem I find here is his career and accomplishments are supposed to be celebrated in this exhibit, but the accusers want his whole life to be chalked up to a series of accusations that couldn’t be proven. The museum seems to want to highlight the good he has done for his community as a role model, but does that mean they don’t have to discuss the hard topics?  Moreover, is it the responsible for the museum to include a narrative that was not only dismissed by courts, but puts Cosby in such a position that he will never be allowed any peace?

7 thoughts on “Should We Tell the Whole Truth?

  1. They discuss parts of this in a NYT article I just read about the NMAAHC ( I think ultimately it’s left up to the decisions and interpretation of the curators. Can we tell each and every story with complete detail? Most likely not. These are tough issues and questions to grapple with. I’m not trying to defend Cosby here, but there is a whole lot more to his life, his career, and his contributions that the recent scandals surrounding him.


  2. Unfortunately this isnt the first time the Cosby name and a museum have had a difficult relationship. But I’m wondering if this could be the way people reconnect with Cosby outside of the scandal.


  3. Two things strike me about this.

    1. We public history people tend to see our museums as critical spaces. We employ academic words like “interrogate” and “examine” to define what we do. We disavow any suggestion that by doing an exhibit, we are valorizing, memorializing, commemorating, or celebrating a person and subject. BUT, no one else in the world thinks about museums that way. As far as the general public is concerned, if it is in a museum, it is being celebrated. We need to be conscious of that fact.

    2. As public historians, we need to face public knowledge head on–it’s like when Beverly Serrell says you have to address the obvious questions in an artifact label or image caption. People are going to be thinking about current events when they see your topic and if you don’t comment, they’ll be disengaged. So… in my world, I might want to talk about the Confederate flag or some other Civil War history thing…. but people are likely going to be thinking about the Charleston Massacre when they see my artifact. I have to address that. Same goes for this. Whether you want to offer a pre-accusation history of Bill Cosby, you still have to address it because that’s what people are going to be thinking about. Unfortunately, the NMAAHC is probably in a no-win situation here.

    What do you do at that point?


  4. The Fox article quotes one of the accusers that they feel like they would be “labeled,” but would still consider it if the exhibit was open about it.

    I myself think this would be a good topic for a community panel or group to figure out not only how to handle this in the museum, but how to keep the conversation from taking a left turn


  5. As a parallel example,think about the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the OJ Simpson exhibit. Many have demanded his removal, but the Hall of Fame states that their inductees are chosen for their contribution to the sport and personal character does not factor in. Could you stand there without thinking about murder, robbery, and kidnapping? They would have to leave a big, empty space in the exhibit hall to accommodate the elephant in the room.

    In an example more applicable to what we are studying, compare this to all the Civil War monuments and building names that are now coming into question. If Cosby gets a pass, then why not let Aycock Auditorium keep its name? Aycock did wonderful things for the state regarding education. Don’t we want to celebrate his career and accomplishments, and all the great things he did for the community? Do we have to talk about the hard topics? He wasn’t even guilty of an actual crime. In the end, character always counts, and if your public is informed enough to question your subject’s character then it cannot go unaddressed without the museum jeopardizing trust.


    • I have to wonder overall with The issues surrounding not only him, but controversy with other museums he has been involved with if there comes a point when its best to let it rest? I would like to think most people remember Cosby for the wonderful person he is, so maybe a physical representation of him alone is really the way to go, or maybe fitting his characters into larger narratives


  6. It is a fine line between doing historian things and making moral judgments. As historians, our job is to understand and explicate historical actors’ lives, no matter how odious or misunderstood. Our morals and opinions (and those of others) should inform how we talk about these things, yes, but if we prioritize our outrage or pitch into debates on remove it/cover it, or not… what are we, as historians, bringing to this? To that end, I’ve always been skeptical that what we’re dealing with in history is “truth” and so when we talk about exhibiting historical figures I don’t think truth is a thing we can capture. (Also, “truth” is a word that critics use to mean “the things I want talked about that you are not talking about.”) I would prefer to think of this as not a debate on telling truth or not, but “how do we tell this story.”

    Anyhow… I really like Marick’s probably inadvertent description of an exhibit… If we don’t want to get into charges and convictions on a person we like… how about just do an exhibit on him in a large space, but confine it to a small corner and let the empty area frame the good things with silence.


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