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Smithsonian Finally Says It Will Publicly Acknowledge Bill Cosby’s Sexual Assault Allegations

Photograph by Michael R. Barnes via Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian Institution says the National Museum of African American History and Culture will make mention of the numerous sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby, just days after it was reported that an exhibit featuring the comedian would not.

But in a statement published Thursday, the museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch, says an exhibit highlighting Cosby’s long career will now include recognition of the dozens of allegations against him. Cosby is to be prominently featured in “Taking the Stage,” an exhibit about black entertainers throughout US history.

“This is not an exhibition that ‘honors or celebrates’ Bill Cosby but one that acknowledges his role, among many others, in American entertainment,” Bunch writes in the statement. “Some people feel that the Smithsonian should eliminate all mention of Bill Cosby as a result of recent revelations. We understand but respectfully disagree. …. Visitors will leave the exhibition knowing more about Mr. Cosby’s impact on American entertainment, while recognizing that his legacy has been severely damaged by the recent accusations.”

A feature on the museum in the New York Times last Sunday suggested otherwise. While 50 women have said Cosby drugged or assaulted them in alleged incidents dating back to 1967, the Smithsonian has tried to avoid the controversy, often clumsily, while remaining its ties to the comedian and his wife, Camille, who have lent much of their art collection to its museums. An ongoing exhibit at the National Museum of African Art features 62 items on loan from the Cosbys, and, as a Smithsonian curator suggested in the Times article, any examination of African-American contributions to television would feel incomplete without any mention of The Cosby Show or I Spy.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to open September 24, with President Obama cutting the ribbon.

Here’s Bunch’s full statement:

There have been many misconceptions and mistaken notions about the presence of Bill Cosby within the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibition, “Taking the Stage,” that explores the history of African American participation in film, theatre and television. This is not an exhibition that “honors or celebrates” Bill Cosby but one that acknowledges his role, among many others, in American entertainment. Some people feel that the Smithsonian should eliminate all mention of Bill Cosby as a result of recent revelations. We understand but respectfully disagree. For too long, aspects of African American history have been erased and undervalued, creating an incomplete interpretation of the American past. This museum seeks to tell, in the words of the eminent historian John Hope Franklin, “the unvarnished truth” that will help our visitors to remember and better understand what has often been erased and forgotten. Like all of history, our interpretation of Bill Cosby is a work in progress, something that will continue to evolve as new evidence and insights come to the fore. Visitors will leave the exhibition knowing more about Mr. Cosby’s impact on American entertainment, while recognizing that his legacy has been severely damaged by the recent accusations.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.