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]

Scanography

Scanography (also scannography, or scanner photography) is the art of making photographic images using a flatbed camera.

It is a development arising from Xerox art, in which artists use photocopiers to capture and print an image in one step.

Objects are arranged on the scanner’s glass platen before being scanned to produce a digital image which can be manipulated using editing software and this provides scanographers with a level of artistic control which is denied to practitioners of Xerox art.

Scanners are capable of producing a digital negative which captures extremely fine detail, and which also has shallow depth of field – characteristics shared with large format photography.

Carrotid Scan_Curran D

Darryl Curran, 1995. Carrotid Scan

Darryl Curran is an artist working with scanner technology. His image ‘Carrotid Scan’ is held at the Norton Simon Museum (Pasadena).

The image portrays a seemingly odd assembly of objects: carrots complete with greens, scraps of paper, and a small plate featuring black text on a yellow background are all shown against a background of floral printed textile.

A limited palette allows the vivid orange of the carrots to draw the viewer’s eye to this, the main subject.

Subjects are shown in fine detail except where the shallow depth of field brings an attractive visual aesthetic.

Fundamentally, scanography arises from fairly standard and relatively robust equipment being put to an alternative use: equipment intended for recording and reproducing the mundane and uninteresting (documents) has found a use producing unique works of art which are anything but uninteresting.

It is a process which can be simple, or technically sophisticated – depending on the skill level of the scanographer and the intended effect.

Scanography has a lot of appeal for me – it is an interesting process, producing attractive images. I intend to carry out further research into this method, and use it in my photographic practice in the future.

It’s ability to be a simple process, together with the widespread availability of scanner technology, makes this a cheap, interesting, and educational activity that can involve the whole family – and not just an activity for rainy days. Children love making things and the potential for scanography to produce visually appealing images from almost any object close to hand (parental supervision required) mean that this is an excellent way to introduce an interest in photography at an early age.

See also: ‘Cameraless Photography

Image: https://www.nortonsimon.org/art/detail/PH.2013.1.1

On Reflection: Week 4, Module Three

I looked forward to this week’s activity – cameraless photography. I wasn’t disappointed.

My first attempt at cameraless photography involved making cyanotypes. Admittedly my first efforts were not particularly fine examples of this type of work, but this was purely because of the objects (or lack thereof) that were available for image-making. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the activity.

The brief for the cameraless photography project suggested using unfamiliar equipment, and objects that were to hand as subjects – sitting at my desk, trying to make cyanotypes during a five-minute break from packing for a house move didn’t exactly present me with a huge amount of choice in terms of suitable subjects.

Whilst the results were not outstanding, the activity was especially interesting, and it was a positive experience to create something without the use of my camera. Moving on from this first attempt, I want to revisit the exercise and experiment with different types of subjects. I also want to investigate the role that different types of light play (or don’t as the case may turn out to be) in the making of cyanotypes.

Scanography proved to be a very successful method of image-making for me, and one which I intend to incorporate into my photographic practice.

The same eclectic array of objects which failed as subjects to lend themselves to cyanotype imaging, took on a surprising level of visual appeal when ‘photographed’ by a standard, desktop scanner.

The particularly fine level of detail captured by this process is deceptive. The shallow depth of field adds to the aesthetic appeal of the images.

I think some experimentation will be required in order to perfect the technique, but I see a lot of mileage in in this type of photography.

It is possible I have been bitten by the ‘scanography’ bug …

On Reflection: Week 3, Module Three

Where to go? What to do? How to do it?

How do I follow on from the success of ‘Ten’?

A problem which has bothered me, coming in and out of my thoughts but not really going anywhere, for several weeks.

Well, today I wasn’t thinking about it, I was actively thinking about something else, and like a spark jumping a gap, the connection was made and an idea instantaneously developed.

I’m reasonably sure that, as a project, it will work and just need to try a few things out in order to confirm.

Just in time, as I am mindful that the deadline for the next round of assignments is only eight weeks away – seems a long time but it will pass as quickly as the blink of an eye. I really want to crack on.

A very interesting week working on a crowdsourcing zine: ‘Walk in My Shoes’.

The project was an outstanding success, so much so in fact, that it warrants an extension. The request for crowdsourced footwear related images was met with a response that was, and continues to be, exceptional – I would dare to suggest beyond anything we expected. My friend Jo and the rest of the zine editing team were both amazed and humbled by the response and are truly thankful to all those who contributed.

This suggests an area for some very important research – why are some crowdsourcing projects so successful, whilst others are failures?

Who responds, how and why? Who answers the call, and what motivates them to do so?

In terms of establishing a ‘brand’ as a professional photographer, these are fundamental questions.

Fair to say a huge amount of research has been done in this area, it forms a basis for professional marketing agencies, advertising companies and copywriters. But any knowledge I acquire will be new to me.

Furthermore, I think it’s different for artists who create something – they need that level of understanding themselves because they have to balance creating a unique identity, or to use the jargon, a unique selling point or brand, with creating art. The creativity is inside and it isn’t a matter of simple differentiation.

I don’t think it works on the same level in some other businesses where it comes down to (simply) identifying a unique feature of a product and/or getting the product out to customers.

Also, there have been some very interesting and informative discussions this week regarding track licensing, rights and royalties, and monetisation. At this point, several more questions have been raised – questions about ‘weighty’ issues – in fact as many new questions have been raised as answers have been found. But, all very positive and I can see a satisfactory resolution.

Research into the various types of video production software has continued. It’s now moved on from identifying what is available and shortlisting, and has reached a practical, hands on phase of learning to use the chosen software packages.

So, a late night on Saturday, a significant step forward. OK, there were some problems to solve before the task could be completed but I feel that solving those problems made for a richer learning experience.

It’s always a massive sense of achievement to gather all the necessary resources and use them to create something – to sit back and look at something and say, ‘I made that’.

Looking ahead, a project to create photographic images without using a camera (and in the midst of moving home). I’m looking forward to this task, the photography, not the moving that is … … really don’t like moving!

On Reflection: Week 2, Module Three

Appropriation and misappropriation! No, not the title of a lost script from Blackadder the Third, as much as it may sound like one.

Instead a cautionary tale for every artist.

‘Molotov Man’ illustrates the worst way to appropriate another artist’s work. When did it become anything other than best practice, common courtesy, and common sense to credit another artist when using their work. I find it incredible that one artist could source another artists work, and then use that work as a basis for her own project, without giving any credit whatsoever to the original artist (‘Appropriation and Misappropriation’)

The main event this week, however, the production of a movie style teaser trailer for my project. Quite a task and certainly new territory for me – this is an area in which I have absolutely no experience whatsoever.

Straightaway I can see the advantages of developing a skillset in this area – significant advantages. Ideas start popping off in my mind like firecrackers at Chinese New Year. My internal dialogue is running through scenarios of where and how the ability to skilfully produce and edit videos would be useful.

And so research began …

One thing which immediately became apparent, and it’s something I touched on when looking at the use of interactive ebooks, is the disparity between the Mac operating system and Windows based systems.

Mac PCs and laptops come with iMovie included. Windows Movie Maker ceased being included with new Windows based machines some time ago.

I’ve seen some amazing trailers produced by my fellow students over the past few days – all using iMovies. And not only do my fellow students eulogise about iMovies, the software also comes with trailer templates for anyone wishing to somewhat automate the process.

So, what are the options for Windows based machines?

Well, there are a number of options, including Windows Movie Maker, which is still available to download via a link.

These software packages, though, are far from being equal. Some are extremely limited, whilst others could prove to be exceptionally powerful – provided you have a significant amount of time to invest in learning how to use the software. Of course, you then have to assess the risk of investing this time only to arrive at a point where you realise that the software really isn’t that good after all, or that it won’t do what you want.

I intend to carry out some significant research in this area, and have the go ahead from teaching staff to take my time making the trailer in order to do so, and so I don’t wish to write extensively about my findings to date here. But what I will say is that the two software packages that really stand out are Camtasia and Adobe Premiere Pro – these are both very powerful applications, packed with features, and – importantly – are easy to pick up and run with because of their intuitive user interfaces, many features are ‘drag and drop’. Additionally, for those inclined, Adobe Premiere Pro is supported by a wealth of textbooks providing instruction in its use, notably for me the official ‘Adobe Premiere Pro Classroom in a Book’. Finally, Premiere can be used not only in conjunction with all other Adobe products but notably After Effects – a dedicated film and special effects application.

This week, during my research into video production, I heard a fantastic piece of music. I contacted the composer with a view to discovering the title of the work, and instead ended up in negotiations (ongoing) to have the music licensed to me.

Inspired by … Ed Ruscha

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It was, I think, inevitable that I would be drawn to Ed Ruscha’s 1969 work “Crackers” – a story told in images of a man who takes his date to a hotel room, persuades her to undress before covering her body in tomato, cucumber and salad dressing. He goes off to buy some crackers, having realised he forgot this important item, never to return.

Before I even picked up my camera to shoot the series of images for this project, I had the idea of producing an interactive ebook – my mind “free wheeled” after reading the brief and I decided pretty quickly on a variation to a photobook.

However, producing an interactive ebook proved to be less than simple, largely because the software needed to both produce and subsequently read this type of publication is not universally available. Furthermore, interactive ebooks prove to be a particular problem for Mac users.

Nevertheless, this has been both an interesting and invaluable learning experience and I am grateful to those with greater IT knowledge than myself who provided assistance, and also to those who took time to test prototypes.

The alternative method of dissemination remains, therefore, as a standard photobook which is awaiting publication whilst I evaluate the various companies which offer photobook printing services. At the moment, the concept is for a soft cover book, 8 x 8”.

 

References:

https://blog.library.si.edu/2012/07/ruschas-artists-books/#.WTVIfOSV7IU

https://www.moma.org/collection/works/146935?locale=en