This is the third 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.

The debate on firearms can impact how a visitor perceives a particular type of gun, which places the educator in the position of acknowledging visitor expectation while balancing the message and history that an exhibit is intended to convey. Oftentimes, there is a hierarchy for items that are considered controversial depending on current perceptions and events.

In 2016, I curated the first exhibition of Glock firearms in the United States to discuss the development of polymer technology in the late twentieth century. While the exhibit was predominantly technological in nature, the exhibition was met with fierce resistance by visitors and several board members. They felt the firearms museum had no place interpreting black firearms and should stick to what they perceived as “historic pieces.” However, most of the firearms in the exhibit were made in the 1980s, so they had historical lineage.[4]

While the Glock firearms at the time had only thirty years of history, other firearms in the collection, that were far older, sometimes carried the same baggage. Firearms on display that are not new technologically but perceived as such were also met with resistance. For example, semi-automatic and automatic firearms invented in the 1880s are still a technology used today. While they are well over 100 years old—some semi-automatics even fall under the federal designation of an antique and are not legally firearms[6]—the fact that the technology is still used and debated in the present makes it difficult to discuss its historical past.

Prior to the 2022 Bruen decision, firearms made before the nineteenth century were predominantly free of controversy, however, now they stand at the forefront of determining constitutionality of modern gun laws. Now firearms available from the period of the American Revolution are fast becoming the subject of political punditry for both sides of the debate. One side references single shot firearms during this period as evidence that the Founding Fathers could not have envisioned the progression of modern firearms and therefore, would not have known to legislate it. The other references repeaters that were available at the time as the basis for modern technology and evidence that the Founding Fathers knew about them yet chose not to legislate them.

Acknowledging and understanding the points of controversy can help facilitate deeper examination of objects and create more effective interpretive displays to demystify the politics around the objects. But how do we improve this ever-complicated, ever-changing area of study?

Navigating the Narrative

Firearms can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on the mission of the institution, the type of collection, and the current political climate. However, lack of material-culture study on the subject has led to a dearth of knowledge in the academic community—a hole that has been filled by collectors. Some collectors have done a tremendous job researching technical information while others have relied on colloquial knowledge, perpetuating mythology of firearms. However, there are even fewer people who are trained to connect the dots. The answer on how to broaden the base of knowledge in the field is hopefully lying within research centers and symposia to unite divergent fields of study and beliefs into one cross-disciplinary repertoire of knowledge from which public educators can pull.

Endnotes

[1] Jennifer Tucker, “A Roundtable Discussion about the Public Exhibition of Firearms and Their History.” Pending publication

[2] Ibid.

[3] The term Gun-quarium was coined by Professor Benjamin Nicholson, Art Institute of Chicago, at the first Arsenals of History Symposium. It was much cleverer than anything I could have come up with to describe this type of display.

[4] By the opening of the exhibit, those who had initially voiced concerns had changed their minds after seeing the interpretation and context in which these guns were placed

[5] Pre-1898 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms definition for an antique. https://www.atf.gov/firearms/firearms-guides-importation-verification-firearms-ammunition-gun-control-act-definitions-0. Accessed 8/14/2018.

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