August 17, 2007

County Museum closes controversial exhibit

The Press-Enterprise

The San Bernardino County Museum unexpectedly shut down an exhibit on Mesoamerican art that had been criticized for being inaccurate and culturally insensitive. The exhibit opened May 19 and was scheduled to run through Nov. 4. But the Redlands museum quietly closed it on Aug. 1. Exhibit critics did not find out about the closure until this week.

Museum Director Robert McKernan and Curator Adella Schroth said the controversy had nothing to do with the decision. The exhibit closed three months early because the hall where it was located was being remodeled, they said.

Enrique Murillo, an educational anthropologist and associate professor of language, literacy and culture at Cal State San Bernardino, was incredulous at the explanation.

"They're basically using the refurbishment as a way of saving their dignity," said Murillo, one of the exhibit critics. "They did a sloppy job with the exhibit. Now they've decided because they can't really silence us, they'll close the exhibit. It's a shame. These objects deserve to be displayed, but in a way that's contextualized and educative."

He and others said the exhibit was riddled with misspelled names, inaccurate dates, geographical errors and culturally insensitive wording. The museum made several changes to the exhibit after the problems became public. But experts said some of the revisions were careless and simply replaced some factual errors with other inaccuracies.

McKernan said in a July 17 interview that he would meet with Murillo and two other critics to discuss their concerns and would make whatever changes were necessary to make the exhibit accurate. Murillo said McKernan never met with them. McKernan did not mention in that interview that the exhibit would close early.

The museum remodeling was planned before the exhibit opened, McKernan acknowledged Thursday. The county Board of Supervisors approved $500,000 for the project on June 19. Some remodeling began before the controversy emerged over the exhibit, yet the artifacts from Mesoamerica - which refers to the pre-Hispanic civilizations of much of Mexico and Central America - remained on display.

Xavier Cázares Cortéz, an artist and art educator, said it was a "slap in the face" to him and other critics that McKernan only informed them of the exhibit's closure this week, and only after Cortéz sent McKernan emails asking for an update on the exhibit.

Cortéz said it was better to close the exhibit than misinform visitors with incorrect information. But he said the revisions needed to make the exhibit accurate were inexpensive and relatively minor, such as changing labels. Instead, he said, the museum spent county tax money to install the exhibit only to dismantle it less than halfway through its run and before many residents had a chance to see it.

McKernan said at least half of the artifacts in the Mesoamerican exhibit would go on permanent display at the museum by the beginning of January 2008. He said outside experts would review the accuracy of the labels and other materials related to the artifacts before they go on permanent display -- something he acknowledged did not occur before the temporary exhibit opened.