On Curation and Curating

‘Where once the curator needed only to be a specialist in their field, now they have to be communicators, computer and IT operators, fundraisers, outreach officers, research specialists, conservators, strategic planners, financially adept, project managers and on top of this…underpaid’ (Museums Association 2004: 3 in Edwards 2007).

… … …

‘People think curating just means choosing nice things’ (Worsley, 2016).

I tend to agree with this headline, believing that most people have very little knowledge of what curation involves. I include myself amongst those with a lack of knowledge regarding this profession.

What is involved in curating?

What are the skills essential to the role of curation, and what makes a good curator?

Interviewed by The Guardian in 2016, Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, informs us that curation not only involves being a custodian of artefacts, but also a custodian of the knowledge associated with those artefacts – their history:

‘Curating isn’t just a matter of taste. It involves building up a real knowledge of the items in your care. As the world gets quicker, and shallower, and bite-sized, retaining our ability to take a deep dive into history is more and more important’.

Conversely, Harriet Loffler (Curator of Modern & Contemporary Arts, Norfolk Museums Service) highlights that objects are not preserved or conserved in perpetuity – describing decisions regarding the disposal of items as ‘difficult’.

Ana Debenedetti, Curator of Paintings at the V & A, describes the role of a curator as that of facilitator and promoter of public access to collections held within museums.

This connection to people is echoed by Lucy Bamford, Curator of Art, Derby Museums: ‘working in a museum has given me a connection to people – to the rest of humanity – that I never had before’.

A postgraduate taking an MA in Museums Studies, Maja Michaliszyn, suggests that whilst the work of a curator is multi-faceted, the biggest challenge she has encountered has been dealing with time constraints, pointing out that ‘coming up with the theme and then building the narrative around the display was time-consuming, but at the same time a fascinating experience’.

Chandler (2009) describes curatorship as something which ‘typically involves structuring relationships and imposing organizational frameworks on works displayed within an exhibition’. She goes on to describe such ‘forms of classification’ as being ‘monographic, chronological, geographic, cultural, material or medium and thematic groupings.’

This immediately causes me to pose a question: if a curator’s role is to safeguard a repository of artefacts and history whilst acting as an intermediary, bringing such artefacts and knowledge into the public realm, to what extent do their decisions reflect an ideology? And is that ideology their own?

Bourdieu (1993, pp. 74 – 141) suggests that curators in distinguished institutions are able to exercise significant power with regard to promoting some artists to the detriment of others.

Claire Warrior (Senior Exhibitions Interpretation Curator, National Maritime Museum) suggests, however, that: ‘museums are sites of negotiated authority, in which curators remain responsible for the objective documentation of their collections, shaping credible narratives around artefacts through research and exhibitions’.

Times have changed and Warrior points out that ‘most curators have exited their ivory towers and firmly shut the door behind them, entering into dialogues with their audiences that are much more fruitful for both parties‘.

The profession of curation exists within a changing landscape.

The opportunity for individuals to curate has undoubtedly increased as a result of technological advances (e.g. the internet). But is everyone who becomes a custodian of something a curator? Or is that term best left to describe those with appropriate qualifications who undertake such work on a professional basis?

Lucilla Burn (Keeper of Antiquities, Fitzwilliam Museum) shares her thoughts on this issue, writing accordingly:

‘It seems you can curate anything, from a flower show to a weekend or even a shopping list. As a classicist I don’t in principle object to this revival of the etymological origin of the word curator, which literally means caretaker. But I’m not sure I want to go along with the growing feeling that the activities of museum curators aren’t any different from those of people who collect shells and lay them out in patterns on their windowsills. I’m as likely to pick up shells from the beach as the next person, but I do have two problems with classifying this activity as ‘curating’.

The first is: where do we draw the line? Am I curating the laundry when I sort out the odd socks and hang them in a neat row on the line? Are nursery nurses ‘child curators’? Are supermarket shelf-stackers ‘curators of retail display space’? If not, given that these all exemplify ‘taking care of’, why not? Where is the boundary line beyond which the term turns (really) silly?

And secondly: how helpful is it for ‘people who have specialist knowledge of, and work in and with museum and gallery collections, safeguarding and sometimes increasing them for future generations, studying them to extend knowledge and understanding, and helping numerous different audiences to appreciate them through a variety of methods and media’ to have lost their right to use the rather convenient, shortish word formerly used to describe their profession? What are we supposed to say at parties? My suggestion is that rather than meekly accepting that no, we aren’t a profession, that we have no special skills or abilities, and that everyone is a curator now, we need to ‘re-brand’ ourselves. Suggestions, please, on a postcard…..’

 

The purpose of this investigation was not to establish all the answers, instead it was to provide me with sufficient knowledge to be able to ask questions which are more meaningful.

Whose work will be featured in the exhibition? How many artists will contribute? And why?

How will work by different artists be linked? What will be the theme for the exhibition?

How will work be displayed? What display model will be used?

What is the intended length of time for the exhibition? Will there be different dates and times for groups (opening, private views, talks, workshops, closing? What will the opening hours of the exhibition?

How will viewers be expected to move through the exhibition? Will there be a specific flow?

Additionally, environmental factors such as lighting, and décor need to be considered as they contribute to the overall ambience of the exhibition and influence the viewing experience.

Whilst these questions are, arguably, common sense, I can now search for answers from a vantage point which is much more informed – interrogating issues much more incisively.

… … …

In conclusion, curation is a highly specialised role. I think a greater understanding of the curating role, the factors which act to influence it, and (at least some of) the theoretical models used within the profession will enable us as photographers to stage more meaningful presentations of our work – especially given that many of us will, at some stage in our career, be called upon to curate our own exhibitions.

 

References:

Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, In Randal

Johnson (ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Burn, Lucilla. (n.d.). ‘What is a curator?’. Artandscienceofcuration.org.uk [online]. Available at: http://www.artandscienceofcuration.org.uk/what-is-a-curator-lucilla-burn/ [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Chandler, Lisa. (2009) ‘’Journey without maps’: unsettling curatorship in cross-cultural contexts’. Museum & Society Vol 7, No. 2 [online]. Available at: https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/museumsociety/documents/volumes/chandler.pdf [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Edwards, E.C., (2007). ‘The Future for Curators’. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 18(S1), pp. 98–114 [online]. Available at: http://doi.org/10.5334/pia.290 [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Loffler, Harriet. (n.d.) ‘What is it that curators do?’. Artandscienceofcuration.org.uk [online]. Available at: http://www.artandscienceofcuration.org.uk/curators/ [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Michaliszyn, Maja. (n.d.) ‘What is curating?’. Artandscienceofcuration.org.uk [online]. Available at: http://www.artandscienceofcuration.org.uk/what-is-curating/ [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Museums Association, 2004. Pay in Museums. London: Museums Association.

The Guardian. (2016) ‘’People think curating just means choosing nice things’ – secrets of the museum curators’. The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/2016/jan/22/museum-curator-job-secrets-culture-arts [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Warrior, Claire. (n.d.). ‘What is a curator?’. Artandscienceofcuration.org.uk [online]. Available at: http://www.artandscienceofcuration.org.uk/what-is-a-curator-claire-warrior/ [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

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