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Diversities in Curatorial Practice

Written by Simone Witney. How do we assign ethical value to the objects we display in museums? Examining our relationship with historical objects and artwork, this article shines a light on the role of the curator, and how curatorial intentions can be misinterpreted.

“The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.”

The museum and the Klu Klux Klan

Hardeep Dhindsa’s talk at the Classics Society 7 October 2020 was a lucid and engaging critique of Classics as a discipline constructed through a colonial, white, privileged perspective. One of his examples touched on the role of museums. He cited a British Museum tour of 15 objects whose selection privileged ones which had been acquired by legitimate means, by implication occluding the issue of those which had not.

This sparked off for me various reflections: how are ethical values assigned to objects on display? What determines whether the display is an arrogant celebration of colonial acquisition or exposure of injustice? Can the integrity of curatorial intention be protected?

Clearly, interpretation is not always within the control of the curators. This has been brought into focus in the recent decision by four major art institutions in the US to delay artist Philip Guston’s exhibition until 2024. They hope that then the ‘message of social and racial justice’ at the centre of his work ‘can be more clearly interpreted’.

His paintings depict figures dressed as members of the Klu Klux Klan engaged in everyday activities. Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, says in defence of the work that it shows the ‘banality of evil’ (Hannah Arendt’s phrase), but the qualities of the work and its intended message are immaterial here. As Isis Davies-Marks comments in Smithsonian magazine, the exhibition can ‘either exacerbate tensions or deepen understanding of the societal problem of systemic injustice.’ What has spooked these institutions is uncertainty about controlling which meaning will be assigned in the context of heightened sensibilities, and the risks, financial and social, this entails.

This point is made by Daren Walker, president of the philanthropic Ford Foundation and a trustee of the National Gallery of Art Washington:

“What those who criticise this decision do not understand is that in the past few months the context in the US has fundamentally and profoundly changed on issues of incendiary and toxic racial imagery in art, regardless of the virtue or intention of the artist who created it.”

Museums, however, curating a diversity of materials over considerable lengths of time, have more imaginative options.

It is all about the hat

Meaning can be appropriated and reassigned in numerous ways. Some were illustrated in the recent British Museum exhibition, “I Object” curated by Ian Hislop, of objects which had a subversive function.

Without additional information, the image of a handsome stylish Indian man is just that, but it is a photo of Bhagat Singh, a campaigner for independence in India. Taken in 1929, it was printed widely in the press, despite British attempts to suppress it. Why the need for suppression? The fedora was worn by the British in power and by disseminating this image Bhagat symbolically took back that power for the people he represented. In a similar demonstration of reassigning symbolic value, women in 2017 knitted ‘pussy’ hats to protest Trump’s use of the word ‘pussy’.

There were other examples, some poignant, some entertaining: a Bible of 1631 with ‘thou shalt commit adultery’; coins stamped with ‘votes for women’; banknotes with ‘scum’ concealed in the watermark; the cartoon of a bloated George IV with medications for VD on a nearby table. The message in all these is unequivocal but consider a delicate painting of a Chinese landscape in which the traditional misty pines have been replaced by pylons. It is a critique of the process of industrialisation but imagine it as an ad for a power company. How well the pylon-trees suit the landscape! A perfect marriage of nature and progress! Again, the inherent or intended meaning is vulnerable to how it is perceived or contextualised.

How beautiful it is and how easily it is broken

The survival of the material past is characterised by precarity. Things reach museums through wars, floods, fire, and sheer happenstance. They endure the mixed motivations of human beings, changing ascriptions of value, the vicissitudes of developments in restoration technique, and variable curatorial criteria. I wonder how many things in museum collections have a ‘pure’ provenance, even if discoverable, and whether the concept has any value. History is a record of how all these factors jostle and one is often forced to acknowledge that ‘good’ outcomes seem to arise from ‘bad’ motives, chance, failures. I am not suggesting that the good should be offered as a justification for the bad, rather that curators need an overarching concept which allows ethics a position in relation to all the other factors which are at play. Why is this important? Because the ability to empathically and impartially entertain different and perhaps conflicting points of view is key to honouring past and contemporary culture with all its multiple perspectives.

Curating is about this kind of honouring and museums can construct a future on this principle, through exhibitions curated idiosyncratically (such as ‘I Object’) and through varied thematic labelling, display design, gallery information, and publications. Of course, integrity in practice must be informed by the failures of the past, however I am suggesting that taking responsibility is best done within an impartial, inclusive, and sensitive approach to the diversity of meaning through time.

I am sure there is much more to be said on this subject. Please leave a comment with your insight, let’s start a conversation!

Written by Simone Witney

Bibliography

Carroll, Lewis. Alice Through the Looking Glass. London: Macmillan, 1871.

Davies-Marks, Isis. “Understanding the Controversy Over the Postponed Exhibition Featuring KKK Imagery.” 2020. Accessed 11 October, 2020. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/unraveling-controversy-over-postponed-art-exhibition-featuring-kkk-imagery-180975931/.

Luke, Ben. “Philip Guston’s KKK paintings ‘are not asleep—they’re woke’: catalogue contradicts museum statement controversially halting show.” 2020. Accessed 11 October, 2020. http://www.theartnewspaper.com/analysis/guston-analysis.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. How Beautiful it is and How Easily it is Broken. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

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