New Exhibit Opening April 1

Controversy: Pieces that You Don’t Normally See

Controversy: Pieces You Don’t Normally See is opening Friday, April 1, 2011, at the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus, Ohio. The exhibit is an innovative departure from previous exhibits in that it focuses on a limited collection of objects and provides limited interpretation of the objects for the visitor.

The electric chair from the old Ohio Penitentiary that was used to execute 312 men and three women between 1897 and 1963.


Controversy will feature objects from the permanent collection of the Ohio Historical Society. For most visitors, this will be the first opportunity to see these objects in a museum setting. The objects are the electric chair from the old Ohio Penitentiary, a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, a sheepskin condom, a crib-bed cage that restrained patients at a state mental institution and a thumb mitt once used to prevent children from sucking their thumbs.

“Objects are not controversial—they are neutral,” said Sharon E. Dean, Ph.D., director of Museum and Library Services, and one of the senior staff at Ohio Historical Society who helped envision the exhibit. “We give objects meaning by projecting our own memories, emotions or prejudices onto them. And those meanings change over time. Each object represents a part of Ohio’s history and we encourage visitors to this exhibit to find their own ways to connect to the objects.”

Traditionally, history museums have used objects to explain a great deal about historical subjects from a scholarly point of view. For this exhibit, rather than explain their significance, the Ohio Historical Society felt it was important to allow these objects to stand on their own, according to Dean.

Burt Logan, executive director of the Ohio Historical Society said, “It’s important to find a safe space to explore controversial subjects. We think this is one of the attributes of this exhibit, to generate conversations about complex issues in Ohio’s history. Ohio, as a pivotal center of history, has been involved in many challenging issues. When viewing these pieces, we suggest that you consider their places in their original context and think about how they may relate to basic beliefs in a democratic society.”

Studies show that layers of content serve to desensitize the visitor and don’t allow the objects to stand on their own. The Ohio Historical Society is using this innovative approach so that an institutional voice would not interfere with a visitor’s honest reaction.

“It’s risky, but we respect the citizens and guests of Ohio and are looking forward to learning their reactions,” Dean said. “It’s a curious phenomenon about objects. They are neutral in and of themselves, yet their presence in a space can evoke very powerful reactions. That’s why one really has to experience the exhibit to explore personal reactions to the objects. I promise you, after you experience the exhibits, you will have reactions you want to share.”

The Ohio Historical Society is working with a design team from Howard and Revis located in Washington, D.C. They have worked on sensitive and highly attended exhibits, including the September 11th Memorial, the National Museum of the American Indian and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. To encourage dialogue and facilitate the exchange of ideas on different topics related to the exhibition, the Ohio Historical Society is planning two program series: Community Conversations, a panel discussion with a portion of the program devoted to audience questions; and Small Talk where discussions take place small groups. All events will take place at the Ohio Historical Center.

The first event will be Community Conversations: Why Controversy? on Thursday, April 7 at 7 p.m. Panelists will include exhibit designers and Ohio Historical Society staff. The schedule for the remaining discussion groups is to be announced and will be available at: http://www.ohiohistory.org/calendar.

Controversy: Pieces You Don’t Normally See is the first installation in a series of exhibits bringing objects to light that may be whispered about or generally held back from public view. Dean explained that a goal of the exhibit was to “shed light on lesser seen pieces in the permanent collection and to underscore that all pieces which have played a part in Ohio history warrant a forum for discussion and a place for viewing.”

The exhibit is limited to visitors age 18 or over or those accompanied by an adult. A special exhibit admission charge of $5 will be in addition to the regular admission charge. The exhibit will be on view from April 1 to Nov. 20, 2011.

The Ohio Historical Center is one of 58 historic sites and museums administered by The Ohio Historical Society, a nonprofit organization that serves as the state’s partner in preserving and interpreting Ohio’s history, natural history, archaeology and historic places. The center is located at I-71 and 17th Avenue in Columbus. It is open Thursdays from 10 a.m.–7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and, beginning April 3, Sundays from noon-5 p.m. Admission is $8/adults, $7/seniors, $4/youths (6-12) and free for children age 5 and under and Ohio Historical Society members. For more information, call 800.686.6124 or visit us at http://www.ohiohistory.org/controversy.

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