Fetus (Dolores Hidalgo)

Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico. Nuestra Senora de los Dolores. On the steps of this church In 1810, the famous “Grito” of Miguel Hidalgo initiated the Mexican War of Independence from Spain.


I found this exhibit in the main chapel on a side wall. It’s a familiar display showing the actual size and development of a human fetus. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this exhibit in a Catholic Church, accompanied by similar text and surrounded by women.


In exhibition practice, how do we discern the difference between providing information or sharing a story, and engaging in propaganda? How does the visitor discern the difference? “Presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented” is one definition of propaganda.


We’re all accustomed to biased or misleading information used to promote a particular political cause or point of view. From subtle to overt, propaganda is pervasive, coming from governments, activist groups, companies, religious organizations and the media.


In the museum world, there’s a healthy debate going on about “neutrality.” Museums as power institutions have never been neutral, but as educational institutions they’ve always pretended to be. To be relevant now, most museums recognize that they should at least be transparent about their own agenda. Why shouldn’t a science museum, for example, be active in the political fight for science? In today’s polarized world we desperately need factual information, and multiple real stories that reflect the complexity of our experience in the modern world. Learning is useless if it doesn’t allow dialog or fuel constructive debate. With the involvement of communities, museums can empower visitors to digest their learning; to express their concerns, reflect on their own thoughts and feelings about issues, and consider their own actions in the world.


Neutrality is an even harder question to ask outside the museum world. Governments, activist groups, companies, religious organizations and the media are all engaged in exhibition as narrative while serving the agenda of their institutions. Perhaps good transparent museums can provide safe places for us to learn how to be more discerning about propaganda?