AS THE Smithsonian Institution continues to stand behind an exhibition featuring Bill Cosby’s art collection, the US public appears sharply divided over the display, based on dozens of e-mails and comments left at the museum.
The protests follow revelations that the comic actor admitted under oath obtaining drugs to give to women with whom he wanted to have sex.
More than two dozen observers have e-mailed the Smithsonian this month urging it to dismantle the exhibit, citing rape allegations against Cosby. Meanwhile, visitors at the exhibit itself have left almost all positive messages in 74 pages of a comment book, praising the artwork despite Cosby’s troubles.
The Smithsonian released 35 e-mails it received in July. Of those, at least 30 call for the National Museum of African Art to take down its “Conversations” exhibition featuring Cosby’s African-American art collection paired with African art. Some thanked the Smithsonian for keeping the exhibit on view.
Online, it was different. Public comments by e-mail ranged from polite protests to angry questions over how the Smithsonian could support Cosby by showcasing his collection. A few threatened to boycott the museum complex, cancel their memberships or withhold future donations.
“By continuing to display any works of art of, by, through Bill Cosby demonstrates and shows how the Smithsonian Institute feels about women,” one person wrote. “We will no longer be supporters of The Smithsonian.”
Names of those who e-mailed comments were redacted.
One writer called the continuing exhibition “sad and pathetic,” while another called it “disgusting.”
Some said the Smithsonian’s decision to stand by the exhibit serves as a tribute to Cosby.
“The truth is the Smithsonian cannot separate the art they [are] exhibiting from the fact that for decades Bill Cosby used his most prominent position in the arts to drug and rape untold numbers of women and girls who were themselves trying to climb that difficult ladder in the arts,” another commenter alleged.
Some called on the Smithsonian to consider Cosby’s alleged victims and the message conveyed by giving his art a prominent venue. They said keeping the exhibit damages the Smithsonian.
“He admitted under oath to drugging women,” one person wrote. “I have three daughters, and I think this act is unforgivable.”
Messages began rolling in about why the Smithsonian was keeping the exhibit, which was funded by Bill and Camille Cosby, and after the Smithsonian posted a disclaimer online and in the museum saying it does not condone Cosby’s alleged behaviour.
“Our current exhibition,” the museum wrote, “is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not the owners of the collections.”
Museum experts and scholars have said taking an exhibit down would trample on the curatorial integrity and academic freedom. The Smithsonian has been accused of censorship for changing exhibits under pressure in the past.
Visitors seem to agree. “Thank you for standing by the decision to exhibit this collection,” wrote visitor Aaro Jean Bell Reid. “We should remember the man behind this collection is [art scholar] David Driskell. Cosby only wrote the checks [sic].”