Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Curators, curation and opinions

I have been intrigued this week by an article entitled ‘Why curation is important to the Future of Journalism”. Check it out here. It refers to the rise of a new role: the journalistic curator.

For us museum bods, a curator refers to the person holding that critical position of looking after a collection. Indeed the word is derived from the Latin ‘cura’ meaning ‘care’. In Australia it is also used for one who cares for a sports ground, e.g. the curator of the Sydney Cricket Ground. And just to confuse us all, the French term for curator is conservator, e.g. conservateurs du patrimoine or heritage curators.

I have blogged before about the increasingly marginalised role that curators have in museums, and it occurred to me that this article might provide some guidance on what the future for museum curators might look like. I quote:
  • “Curation (not a term we often use) gathers … fragmented pieces of information to one location, allowing people to get access to more specialized content”.
  • "Good curators know where to find interesting things, because they know the paths and can provide a knowledgeable voice to make things a little easier to parse”
  • “Curators help navigate readers through the vast ocean of content, and while doing so create a following based on several factors; trust, taste and tools”.
  • “Part of the appeal of good curation is that it carries the person’s footprint. Opinion isn’t really a bad thing, and in fact gives the content shape in this context.
It was the last point that particularly caught my attention. I recently enjoyed the excellent Annie Leibovitz exhibition at the MCA in Sydney. I had only thought of Leibovitz as a portrait and landscape photographer, so I was particularly interested in her work in Sarajevo during the Balkan war. As she said she went there as a journalist, but became frustrated by having to be impartial, and chose to take sides as a photographer (i.e. have an opinion) and document Serbian atrocities.
Should museum curators have opinions? Should their curation reflect a particular viewpoint or expect to provide a balanced and impartial view? I am reminded of the National Museum of Australia controversy over their Australia post-1788 exhibition, which espoused the so-called black armband view, that eventually resulted in the non-renewal of the director’s contract. The NMA clearly had an opinion but was it necessarily a bad thing? John Howard’s advisers thought so.

I turned to the latest edition of the UK Museums Journal to check out their exhibition reviews section. In the first review (“Extraordinary Heroes” at the Imperial War Museum, London) the curator does not even rate a mention (and this at a major national museum), the exhibition designer holding pride of place. However both the next two exhibition reviews list the curator above the exhibition designer, the latter being an exhibition on the Chartism movement at the Newport Museum. It praises the exhibition as ‘treading delicately, balancing the exposition of an important piece of social history…succeeding in producing a display that is both respectful and thoughtful in equal measure”.

So it seems that the mark of a good curator in the modern museum exhibition is a) either to be so impartial as to disappear from the name board, or b) to provide a balanced view. It sounds as though the journalistic curator is a different breed. A pity in my view, and perhaps indicative of why the museum curator is a dying breed.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

1 comment:

  1. .... and why visitor numbers fall off and institutions stagnate!

    Great post! Some institutions - especially in the UK - want curators as stagemanagers for their corporate lunch / gift shop revue shows. Plus, the humourless, middle class, tickbox mentality of our state funders - HLF for example - stifles originality, playfulness and genuine engagement.

    But curators have the POWER! We whisper the story into the audiences' ear. We are also the referees - it ain't a goal unless we call it. Curators (in my view) need to stop "treading delicately..in equal measure" and start kicking out the jams and setting audiences on fire. They'll only want more of it when the get it.