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Warts and All: The Representation and Interpretation of War in Museums

Thesis by Rebecca Harmsen (2016)

The goal of this research was to address the issue of sanitization in the development, design, and presentation of exhibits about war. The definition of sanitization was to make a topic less offensive by limiting, altering, or removing anything that could be considered inappropriate or controversial for visitors. There was little available literature concerning how military museums interpreted the horrors of war within an exhibit and on the existence of sanitization. Fourteen semi-structured interviews were completed with military museums to determine their opinions on sanitization and the methods that they employed to create a balanced war exhibit. The research determined that strategic sanitization was an appropriate practice to utilize in some circumstances, which allows for the broad story to be told accurately while remaining sensitive to the audience’s sensibilities and the museum’s mission. A best practice recommendation list was created to guide military museums and other museums displaying and interpreting difficult stories in obtaining the relevant balance in their exhibits between historical accuracy and audience acceptance. Military museum professionals understand the necessity of displaying and interpreting challenging subject matter to the public; however, the degree to which exhibits display the horrors of war depends on the specific institution.


Keywords: research, interpretation, war, exhibit, military, sanitization


Harmsen, R. (2016). Warts and all: The representation and interpretation of war in museums (Order No. 10138574). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ University of Washington WCLP; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1804414276). Retrieved from