What is Curating?
Wendy Marshall, MA Curating Collections and Heritage student, describes a recent roundtable on a slippery term.
On 26 September 2019, MA Curating Collections and Heritage students were invited to a round table discussion, chaired by Dr Claire Wintle, and supported by the Centre for Design History under its Museums, Archives, Exhibitions research strand. Keen to discuss the uses of the term curating and to find out what today’s curator actually does, we were treated to presentations from four curators sharing experiences and thoughts about their roles as curators, archivists and exhibition managers.
Fig. 1. Kids Guernica with Future Hope, 2019, Roche Bois Social Welfare Centre, Mauritius. Courtesy of Joe Hague.
Dr Nicola Ashmore, Senior Lecturer in History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, spoke about her project, Guernica Remakings, which examines and enables remakings of Picasso’s painting by artists, activities and communities around the world (Fig. 1). Nicola stressed that central to curating the exhibition elements of her project was the need to create a space
for people to think, reflect, make and connect. Its touring phase had included public sewing events in free public spaces (Fig. 2), the commissioning of poetry and working with children in Mauritius to create a children’s Guernica. As part of the tour to Salford’s Working Class Movement Library the exhibition made connections with the histories of child refugees in Salford during the Spanish Civil War. The changing nature of the exhibition in each location demonstrated Nicola’s view that curating is always site-specific, with pop-up exhibitions able to make fresh connections with communities.
Kajal Meghani, collaborative doctoral candidate at the British Museum and University of Brighton and previously Exhibitions Assistant Curator at the Royal Collection Trust, also spoke about curating a touring exhibition that changed at each location. Kajal had been a Collections Assistant who was ‘on the spot’ when the Splendours of the Sub-Continent exhibition was proposed. The exhibition aimed to re-create and reinterpret a nineteenth century touring exhibition of the Prince of Wales’s India Collection of gifts presented during his tour of India in 1875-6.
Kajal showed impressive chutzpah in taking on such a major exhibition whilst still a relatively junior member of the collections team. 70 key objects were selected from the 200 available which spoke to the themes of the exhibition. This included the practice of court culture and showcasing local craftsmanship. It also allowed visitors from South Asian communities to take a closer look. Kajal was determined to present a critique of the original 19th century interpretation of the objects, however she alluded to the limitations of critique when working within the parameters of a Royal collection.
Collaborative interpretation was central to this exhibition and at all locations (London, Bradford, Leicester and Edinburgh) responses to the objects were invited from artists such as the Singh Twins, alongside poets and musicians. These artworks contextualised the exhibition better than any labels; they invited a personal response and allowed visitors to engage with performances in the gallery.
Presenting on the roles of the Archivist and Curator of archive collections were Sue Breakell and Dr Lesley Whitworth from the University of Brighton Design Archives. Lesley, Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Curator, talked about her career from studying art and design history through to archivist, librarian and PhD scholar, leading to setting up the archival proposition for a design archive with Professor Catherine Moriarty. Lesley’s title of Curator reflected the museums background of her colleague and was seen as the preferred term for her role. Lesley has curated exhibitions, is involved in the committees of learned societies and uses her research activities and networks to position the archive within a broader spectrum of interests than just design. A critical part of her role is to explore the potential of the material in the archive to respond to scholarly research questions.
Sue, Design Archives Leader, spoke about her role in looking after a paper-based archive involving documentation, presentation, preservation and facilitating interpretation. Her previous job title at the Tate had been Curator (Archive), which distinguished museums curatorial practice from archive theory and the archival profession, which is rooted in an administrative practice. Ideas of curating have changed in the digital world and ‘data curating’ is now a new field. The terms curator and archivist are therefore slippery, shifting and related terms, as can been seen in the work of those who use the term flexibly, such as Jeremy Deller, a conceptual, video and installation artist who works at the borders of artist / archivist / curator / exhibition developer.
Considering curating more broadly, the roundtable discussed personal responses to objects and collections, the feeling of responsibility and of needing to do justice to objects in their care while also having a personal impulse to get close to objects. We were told of the challenge of needing to step back from the pleasure of objects in order to discuss processes and context. We discussed giving up the power of interpretation and how freeing this could be and were told that at times we would need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. The curators spoke of exhibitions, particularly Guernica Remakings, as being a meeting of makers across politically-charged artworks, reinforcing the idea of the curator’s responsibility to artworks and makers, reflecting their narrative but also being ethically selective. We were reminded that objects have more than one story to tell.