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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 9, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 29
JHU Course Catalog: Museums and Controversy

Arthur Molella of the Smithsonian teaches a course about contentiousness surrounding museums as part of the Krieger School's new Museums and Society Program.

By Lisa De Nike

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series in which reporters drop in on interesting classes throughout the university's nine academic divisions. Suggestions are welcome at [email protected].

THE COURSE: Museums and Controversy. Offered by the Department of the History of Science and Technology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. 1 credit.

MEETING TIME: 2 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays. Spring 2007

THE INSTRUCTOR: Visiting professor Arthur Molella, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.  A graduate of Syracuse University, Molella holds a doctorate in the history of modern science and technology from Cornell University.

Molella's stint at Johns Hopkins is part of the university's new Museums and Society Program, which offers an undergraduate minor. As part of the program, Johns Hopkins invites historians from the Smithsonian to teach and sends students to the Smithsonian to do research and internships. Molella is founding director of the Lemelson Center and has devoted his career to the history of invention, innovation and technology and to the increasingly complex relationship between science, technology and culture. His newest book, Invented Edens: Technocities of the 20th Century (MIT, in press), was written with Robert Kargon, a professor in KSAS' Department of the History of Science and Technology.

SYLLABUS: Museums and Controversy is designed to help participants understand why museums have become battlegrounds over the last two decades. Students discuss the rash of public controversies that have erupted over science and technology-related museum exhibits and explore the historical, social, cultural and political roots of those debates. Through readings, oral and written presentations, museum visits and a team curatorial project, students gain insight into the dilemmas that museum curators and historians have faced in this increasingly contentious environment.

COURSE WORK: Classes are an interesting mix of lectures, guest speakers and student discussions and presentations, as well as field trips. Guest speakers include Tom Crouch, senior curator of the Division of Aeronautics at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, who spoke about the controversial Enola Gay exhibit, and Cindy Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, who discussed the challenges inherent in trying to preserve history associated with the Manhattan Project. A visit to the Baltimore Museum of Industry allowed students an "up close and personal" look at how history is preserved and presented. Students prepare for each week's topic by reading a variety of journal and book articles. Molella encourages class participation. "Students bring a refreshing perspective on the subject I'm teaching," he says. "I enjoy their insights, energy and commitment to social values. And they make me work to keep up-to-date in my field."

HEARD IN CLASS: "I was curating an exhibit called Science and American Life, which opened in 1994. It included a section on the Manhattan Project and the Bomb. There was pressure on us not to show the resulting mushroom cloud, but we felt we had to do it. It made no sense to discuss the Bomb without showing what it actually did. These are tremendously controversial issues, and they go to the heart of the way we view and remember our history." —Arthur Molella

STUDENTS SAY: "Dr. Molella's class is a fantastic example of how something that may seem very specific--controversy in science museums--can bring in many topics that are important today. Presenting science is not only important for museums but also for any one of us who may write or talk about something that includes science. Predicting possible controversy also teaches us all how to avoid situations that can derail the conversation from its point. I absolutely love the class." —Margaret Putney, 23, graduate student in the Writing Seminars, Chapel Hill, N.C.

"There is no substitute for experience, and Dr. Molella has it. Having survived the Culture Wars of the 1990s intact though scarred, he brings a gentle but determined outlook to the course and, despite this baptism by fire, never shies away from tackling the issues that make our eyebrows rise or stomachs turn. It's a delight just to listen to his stories, not to mention to hear his insights and challenges." —Matthew Hansen, 22, junior anthropology major, San Francisco


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