Should we discuss capital punishment in museums?

In 2006 when I began teaching, a colleague of mine taught a subject called Contemporary History. I found the class memorable for its relevant, engaging and real life approach to history. He identified contemporary, headlining news stories and explored the historical context. For example, in 2015, the subject would explore historical immigration trends and behaviours, Gallipoli, aircraft safety, the war on terror, Syria and capital punishment.

Today Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for his role in the Boston Marathon Bombing. This comes just two weeks after the execution of convicted drug traffickers and bali nine pair, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. The debate in Australia was front page news, for weeks, if not months. Some people argued do the crime, do the time, or they knew the risk whilst at the other extremity the belief centred on the death penalty never being okay. The majority of the debate occurred somewhere within these two black and white beliefs. Contradictions, hypocrisy and inconsistencies were raised, such as Australia’s support for the death penalty for the bali bombing but not for their own citizens, and Australia’s criticism of the death penalty in Asia but not toward other allies such as America. By all accounts, Bostonians are equally divided on the death penalty for Tsarnaev, but more complex the reasons cited. For example, the family of Martin Richards, the young boy killed in the Boston Marathon Bombing opposed the death penalty so there weren’t lengthy appeals, rather than the immorality of the death penalty or the suffering of his family; issues raised in Australia.

As a museum professional, in recent weeks, my thoughts have returned to the role of museums in contemporary history and issues. For the record, I am an advocate for issues based exhibitions and programming. As my partner moved to the US last year, I have taken an increasing interest in their political situation and museology. In doing this, I have noticed issues based exhibitions and empathetic museums are exponentially more topical than they are in Australia. After the events in Ferguson, museums unified under the Twitter hashtag #museumsrespondtoferguson and a number of museum bloggers issues a joint statement; Rainey Tisdale – City Stories, Nina Simon – Museum 2.0,  the incluseum and many more. Furthermore, key museum bodies such as NEMA and AALSH made statements supporting the museums and advocating for the museums “to enter the fray of public discourse” and the power they possess to contribute to collective narratives and “awaken a passion in citizens.” 

To me the same arguments apply to the debate around capital punishment. There are arguments for and against capital punishment. There are also countless facts, figures and exemplary stories to support each discussion. Museums do not have to take a stance on the issue, they need merely be a safe place for sensical discussion and access to accurate and relevant information and objects. The topic is also relevant to many types of museums, science museums can look at the biological, physical, psychological effects on humans as well as the scientific rational and evolution of execution methods. History museums spanning war, community history, women, politics, to name a few, all have relevant and meaningful ways to engage with the topic. Likewise, art museums can explore both the portrayal of historical executions and the social and civic works which challenge or support the idea.

I look forward to seeing the evolution of empathetic and issues based museums in the Australian context. I also look forward to seeing how this debate over capital punishment continues in the media, the public and hopefully the museum sector.


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