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Exhibit Brouhaha

IN a move that seems bizarre, the Library of Congress last week knocked down an exhibit on the plantation life of black slaves only hours after it opened.

The exhibit, "Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation," was based on scholarly research by John Michael Vlach, who used work done in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project. The project completed 20,000 pages of interviews with former slaves. Massachusetts state representative Bryon Rushing, long involved with Boston's excellent African Meeting House Museum, was an exhibit adviser.

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Yet, the library's black employees took umbrage at the display. The library's "senior adviser for diversity" said the staff's reaction must be understood in light of the institution's allegedly poor relations with minority and women employees. A 1982 discrimination lawsuit was just settled.

Even so, closing the exhibit on such grounds is disturbing, coming as it does on the heels of the library's indefinite postponement of an exhibit on Sigmund Freud and the brouhaha over last summer's Smithsonian Institution exhibit on the atomic bombing of Japan in World War II.

We have little sympathy with Freud's doctrines. But it's impossible to ignore their influence on 20th century thought. Many of his theories have been discredited, but he's still a historical figure worth studying. Likewise, while we understand slavery is a painful and sensitive issue for many African-Americans (and for New Englanders whose ancestors owned the slave ships, and descendants of Southern owners who perpetuated that shameful system), it must be faced.

There are names for the behavior of those who agitate to close exhibits they don't like. Censorship is one. Political correctness is a trendier one. Let the exhibits take place, and then use them to further public discussion and understanding of the important events, and people, they spotlight.

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