This is the second in a three-post series on engaging politically incorrect (to some) items and topics in public discourse through the lens of exhibiting firearms in museums.
It is no surprise that firearms are highly politicized objects in current culture. As a result, it can become difficult to separate these artifacts from their actual versus perceived historical narratives. Firearms have over 900 years of history, and while there are narratives of violence attributed to them through an array of different circumstances, both military and civilian, there are many firearms that were not made for such purposes, including art and exhibition pieces as well as sporting arms. With contemporary conversations about firearms on all sides of the political spectrum, it can be difficult for both visitor and employee to dissociate historical artifacts from these discussions, creating a curator dilemma of how best to engage with the public on various and potentially separate historical narratives.
As cultural shifts in attitudes toward guns and general conversations on museology change, it may seem odd that many current firearm displays have not shifted as well. In fact, these displays have not strayed far from their original methodology. Centuries ago in Europe, firearms were showcased in racks of open storage that were called gun cabinets. These exhibits consisted of embellished sporting arms, with some military pieces, that nobility used to show off to their guests. And in most instances, these pieces, while functional, were considered art. While gun cabinetry existed in the private sector, that style of display, akin to cabinets of curiosity, persisted in public museums. Firearms for public display and consumption date back hundreds of years. The first intentional public exhibition of firearms in England dates to 1688 in London. In Liege, Belgium, the Musee d’Armes opened in 1885 and in the United States, the U.S. Patent Office Building showcased the country’s first firearms display in Washington, DC in 1840. The Smithsonian Institution followed with its firearms collection, first displayed in 1876. Even premier art museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, founded its Arms and Armor Department in 1912. The main thread among all these institutions, from armory to art museum, is that, at some point in the institution’s history, firearms were displayed in similar fashions.
In United States museums, firearms typically appear in one of four methods of display—Contextual, Gun-quarium, Visible Storage, and Segregation—or a combination of several.
It is safe to say that at least one firearm or firearm-related artifact appears in most museums around the country. Oftentimes, if a museum is focused on a specific theme or framework, firearms are integrated into the display. They are displayed alongside other artifacts to convey a story about the time, place, and people of an event. Therefore, the artifacts are used to further these individual histories.
These collections feature firearms as part of a larger history. Firearms appear in military galleries and many military museums are sites of arsenals, armories, or military training such as the West Point Museum, Fort Benning’s National Infantry Museum, Springfield Armory, and Rock Island Armory. However, it is important to note that the history of firearms goes beyond war and other history museums do interpret the history of target-shooting and sporting cultures.
These museums utilize interactive displays and diverse types of artifacts that connect to a larger story that is in tune to the missions of individual organizations. However, often, employees designing these exhibits have little to no background in firearms, which can cause problems when they are unaware of specific safety, security, legal, and interpretation standards.
While contextual exhibitions are the most typical for history museums, encyclopedic collections are approached through different methodology. Some large collections like the Smithsonian Institution’s National Firearms Collection are mostly off display—stored in the museum’s vaults—except for a few hundred firearms that integrally mesh with a particular storyline. However, other institutions have attempted to tackle these arduous collections through vast displays of firearms behind glass, a method named, by Associate Professor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ben Nicholson, the “Gun-quarium.”
The Gun-quarium showcases firearms that are artistically arranged in a case with little, and in rare instances, no historical context—often to be observed but not necessarily understood by all. The only context is supplied through long text panels. In this respect, gun museums share commonality with art museums. Both have object-driven missions and tend to rely on large collector bases. These displays are referred to as arms and armor collections, extending beyond firearms to early historical weaponry and accoutrements. However, arms and armor exhibits function for the purpose of showcasing firearms for aesthetic and reverent observation. The diversion from art museums is that firearms museums apply this technique to the utilitarian as well as the embellished. Utilitarian pieces laid out in elaborate fans and artistic displays that cross firearms over one another make it difficult for a researcher to physically study an object rather than simply to appreciate it.
While there are similarities between art and firearms museum display techniques, firearms museums are traditionally considered less academic, as they have been run predominantly by and for collectors. As expected, this type of display is popular with collectors; however, if a visitor does not know much about firearms it’s nearly impossible to draw greater conclusions on the roles of firearms in culture.
Visible Storage Method
An alternative for the deep researcher has arisen over the past decade. Gun-quariums may be aesthetically pleasing to the eye and a preferred method depending on audience and mission, but they are difficult for students of design or engineering to study. One way that museums in general are attempting to provide a deep research experience and a means to feasibly showcase large collections is through visible storage.
Visible storage allows for an exponential number of firearms to be on display and permits viewing from both sides. It has become a popular way for collectors and manufacturers to see the evolution of subtle variations in specific firearms models.
As previously noted, museums with firearms collections do not always have the appropriate staffing. As a result, firearms are often vaulted or separated from the rest of the collection until someone can be trained on specific care and needs of these artifacts. When they are displayed away from the rest of the museum in a manner that limits interpretation, they do little for the visitor who seeks to understand the history and only reinforce the story for the collector who already knows it.
So, with these five general styles of display in some form or another, how do we take these methodologies and push them into the twenty-first century? During my time as Curator at the Cody Firearms Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, we completely renovated and reimagined the space, fusing multiple display methods together. The main level of the museum, while it displayed a significant quantity of guns, placed firearms within thematic galleries to better contextualize the artifacts within their histories for both the novice and enthusiasts. In a few displays, we included a nod to older display techniques with some gun fans, however, we kept that to a minimum. The lower level incorporated a full gun library featuring thousands of firearms and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition in a visible storage display method. Since reopening in 2019, the museum has become popular with both gun-interested audiences and those who know nothing about firearms. However, this is just one limited example on the future of firearms display and I cannot wait to see how other museums tackle this dilemma of interpretation into the future.