This is the first 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.

In 2014, a Yahoo Travel article  listed the ten most politically incorrect museums that might offend you. On the list were museums dedicated to racist memorabilia, Soviet-era propaganda, and war crimes. However, one of the museums on the list was the National Firearms Museum, which is part of the National Rifle Association’s Museums Division (NRA). Ignoring the current attitudes for or against the NRA, part of the reason the museum was on the list was the firearms themselves.

I did not grow up around guns, so when I decided to study them, initially through an interest in battlefield medicine, I was not exposed to today’s political debate on guns. I saw firearms as historical artifacts through which we can learn about many facets of international history over centuries, whether good, bad, or indifferent. So, when I was starting my career, the thought that even displaying firearms in a museum could be considered “politically incorrect” really hadn’t entered my mind.

Firearms as objects in museums create many interpretive opportunities and obstacles, starting with the practical. For example, when a firearm is admitted to a collection, an employee must understand safe handling procedures. This person should treat incoming firearms as if they are loaded, but also have the ability to safely check those artifacts. In addition to safe handling, a managing employee of a United States museum must also know and understand gun laws at federal, state, and local levels because unless that institution is a government entity, they are bound by those laws. There are other display debates about removing firing pins, which renders guns inoperable, and questions about appropriate levels of security in exhibits, depending on where the institution is located. Unfortunately, there are limited resources on firearms care, conservation, and handling.

In addition to these practical considerations, there are emotional, political, and cultural implications with firearms collections. To put it simply, these artifacts have a lot of baggage, some warranted, some not. Despite contemporary debates about guns, there is little material culture scholarship on them, and even fewer people who are trained in both museology and firearms to educate the public. Museum professionals need to be able to gauge visitors’ expectations and experiences to curate exhibits that can adequately convey the messages they want to share. The research into whether artifacts can be politically incorrect led me to investigate how guns have been displayed in museums in the past and how they are displayed now. Are the displays having the desired effects on an institution’s visitation? Can more be done to interpret these artifacts? And can museums, which used to avoid politics, find a way to contextualize complicated narratives for visitors to encourage productive and informed conversations outside the museum walls and even into the gun debate? Should they?

Beginning the Conversation: Working Towards a Deeper Understanding of Firearms and Museology

In 2016, the Aspen Institute and Wesleyan University hosted a symposium on firearms and common law. While most of the conference was dedicated to scholarship on both the United States and the English Bill of Rights, at the conclusion of the multi-day forum was a roundtable on firearms as material culture in museums. Surprisingly, it was one of the first times that museum professionals trained in the study of firearms had been gathered together for the sole purpose of discussing opportunities and limitations of having guns in museums in the twenty-first century.

After the symposium concluded, organizer and Wesleyan Professor Jennifer Tucker, who now runs her own research center on firearms and culture, continued the conversation through a written roundtable that was published in the journal Technology & Culture. Less than a year later, the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West created a full-scale symposium dedicated to the academic study and public education of firearms history. This symposium, Arsenals of History: Firearms and Museums in the Twenty-First Century, had a diversified group of participants including but not limited to representatives from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Smithsonian Institution’s National Firearms Collection, Colonial Williamsburg, US Marshals Museum, NRA Museums, Mob Museum, Marine Corps Museum, Autry Museum of the West, and the Royal Armouries (Leeds). The forum was a combination of public lectures and private workshops that covered a wide array of topics, including proper care and conservation, legal liabilities, and the role of public firearms collections, if any, in the modern gun debate. The inaugural symposium is now an annual series led by the current museum’s Curator, Danny Michael.

The largest take-away from the first symposium was that in every institution, from the Met to the Autry, firearm exhibits tend to be some of the most publicly popular but are both academically and internally the least respected. Despite firearms being so prominent in our history and museums, the pathway to study them is still limited and the training for museum staff almost nonexistent.