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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 01/12/2011

PEN requests Smithsonian to consider broader implications of video removal

By Jacqueline Trescott

The board of the PEN American Center, the human rights and literary organization, has asked the Smithsonian Board of Regents to consider some of the broader issues of censorship surrounding the controversy over a video the Smithsonian removed from a current show.

In a letter to the Regents, PEN said it strongly disagreed with the decision last month to remove David Wojnarowicz's 1987 video "Fire In My Belly," from "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," now at the National Portrait Gallery.

"We were dismayed and profoundly disappointed," the letter said.

The letter asked the Smithsonian to review how the action affects U.S. positions on freedom of expression and whether the removal reflects American values.

"Such an action, by a taxpayer-funded institution so closely associated with the government of the United States, seems completely antithetical both to the core American values the Smithsonian represents and to a key freedom of expression position that the United States has been advancing internationally," the letter said.

The letter was signed by PEN President Kwame Anthony Appiah, Executive Director Steven L. Isenberg and Larry Siems, the director of the Freedom to Write and International Programs.

The National Portrait Gallery and the other Smithsonian museums receive federal funding. Overall the Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its budget from Congress.

The Smithsonian Regents, its governing board headed by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, is scheduled to meet January 31. Throughout the controversy, Smithsonian officials said they removed the video because it was a distraction from the important art and themes in the show.

The Wojnarowicz video contained 11 seconds of a picture of a crucifix crawling with ants and was condemned by Republican leaders in Congress and other conservative groups.

The "Hide/Seek" show, which continues until February 13, explores sexual and gender identity through portraits.

PEN said the broader questions needed to be answered.

"This is, admittedly, a larger framework than the one in which most local museum curatorial decisions are made. But the National Portrait Gallery is just that, a national museum, and its exhibitions and its actions have national, and international, implications. In hosting the "Hide/Seek" exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery sent a loud, and extremely laudable, message about inclusiveness and tolerance, a message that resonates with, and reflects the shared values of Americans, in government, in organizations like ours, and in local communities across the country.

"That message has been blurred by the museum's decision to remove 'Fire in the Belly.' "

By Jacqueline Trescott  | January 12, 2011; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Jacqueline Trescott, Museums, Smithsonian  | Tags:  David Wojnarowicz, PEN American Center, Smithsonian Institution, national portrait gallery  
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