Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

How to curate (just about) anything

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Glenn Adamson, a curator whose books include Fewer, Better Things (2019) and Craft: An American History (2021), writes in Psyche:

Need to know

Next to me, on my desk, is a pile of about 50 books. Some of them I bought. Some I was given by friends. Some were sent by people I didn’t even know, who thought I might be interested in their work. Individually, the books are interesting. Together, though, they have become downright oppressive.

Desks, in this respect, are a lot like closets. And kitchen cupboards. And two-car garages. All seem to naturally fill up with stuff, stuff we kinda sorta want, enough not to ditch it, anyway. My father is a good example. He subscribes to The Economist magazine, and at some point, long ago, decided he would never throw away an issue until he’d read it cover to cover. Last year, he brightly announced that he’d finally reached the September 2001 edition. He was fascinated, from this distance, to see the debates over the World Trade Center attacks and their implications. Just wait till you get to 2020, I said.

In his novel Homer and Langley (2009), E L Doctorow offers a more extreme example: a fictionalised account of the real-life Collyer brothers, whose hoarding instincts were so strong that they ended up living in a narrow warren of passages, squeezing through towering, ramshackle stockpiles of their own belongings, ‘a labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions and many dead ends’. Doctorow adds drama and poignancy to the tale by telling it from the perspective of Homer, the elder brother, who is blind, though the house becomes so crowded that illuminating it is impossible anyway. Homer’s brother Langley also navigates it in near-darkness. Eventually, the brothers are grimly undone by their own packrat ways. And this part of the story, sadly, is true: in 1947, Langley was crushed by a fall of domestic detritus. Homer, unable or unwilling to escape, starved to death.

Most of us should be able to sympathise with the Collyers, because we dislike throwing out things at least a little. Yet the idea that our possessions might turn the tables and possess us holds a certain fascinating horror. Our complex relationship with our things is behind the runaway popularity of Marie Kondo, the diminutive Jedi of decluttering, who has conquered the world with her ‘six rules of tidying’ – most memorably, the injunction to ask of every single thing in your environment: ‘Does it spark joy?’ If not, she counsels, out it goes.

Kondo gives good advice. But we should go further. Her injunctions aren’t much use in helping me figure out how to reduce my book pile, for instance. I do read for joy, sometimes, and occasionally even find it. But I have books for many other reasons, too: for reference, to learn things, to transform my understanding and see the world a bit differently. Kondo’s combination of empathy and minimalism makes for good television. But it won’t get you to the kind of lived-in, peculiarly personalised space that, for most people, defines the ideal of home.

Past the tidying stage, a more capacious process awaits: curating. Before we go any further, let’s admit that overuse has worn the word a bit thin. Even before the rise of social media – which allows a user to carefully curate an avatar self, one post at a time – it was already suffering mission creep. Wedding receptions, department store windows, dinner parties, your weekend away: no longer are these things planned or arranged. They are ‘curated’. A quick incidence search of the term in Google Books shows an astonishing rise, from all-but-zero in 1960 through a slight rise to 1980, and then up a Matterhorn-steep climb to the present day. There is a book out there offering a ‘curated’ tour of America’s RV parks. Another photography book is ambitiously titled Reality, Curated (2021). A website called Curated offers advice on buying just about anything, which will be offered by a 100 per cent human expert (‘or should we say, your new friend’).

Unsurprisingly, museum curators – among whom I number myself – can be irritated by all this. It sometimes feels like a land grab of our professional territory. The meaning of real curatorial work is diluted, while the project of organising everyday things is made pretentious. But what if we accept the overuse of the word as evidence that people actually want to curate? What if we apply museum procedures and principles – the things that curators actually do for a living – to our everyday activities and things? It’s an interesting idea.

What to do

The word curate derives from the Latin curare, ‘to care for’. As anyone who has ever had a child or a pet knows, caring for something is a two-way street, and it’s perfectly OK if most of the traffic is going outbound. The curator’s creed is: ask not what your stuff can do for you, but what you can do for your stuff.

Buy with confidence

In one important respect, this attitude doesn’t translate well to normal life. When a curator writes a ‘case for acquisition’ (as such internal documents are usually called), which are typically reviewed by a broader collections committee, they are singling out an object from the vast number of other things in the world. To acquire something for a museum collection is to designate it as worthy of permanent preservation. The curator is saying to the museum and its visitors and the world: this object is important, and you should think so too.

To apply this attitude to personal possessions would be rather arrogant – think of how awful it can be when parents try to impose their possessions on their own children. (And I’d like to thank my dad for recycling his Economists when he’s done with them.) In some ways, however, a genuine museum curatorial process is a great model to bear in mind.

For starters, a collection is always built in light of a stated mission. Curators don’t ask simply: is this thing great? They ask: is it great for my institution, and my department? This means having a deep understanding of the long-term historical trajectory not just of the object, but of the place where it will reside.

Many factors can come into play when making this determination. Is a prospective acquisition redundant with other objects already in the museum’s holdings? Or, conversely, does it fill a conspicuous hole in the collection? What is the full story of the object, its authorship, medium and history? Is it what it purports to be, and is it in good condition? A good case for acquisition goes into all these questions in depth, and if it’s really well done, might even become a key research tool for future curators.

It would be ridiculous to sit down in the department store to write up all the pros and cons of buying a jacket for the fall season. Still, curatorial questions are the right ones to be asking. Something can be wonderful – epaulettes! – without being right for everyone. Issues of redundancy, complementarity and authenticity must be taken into account. Curatorial habits of mind can prevent impulse-buying, and the regret that follows.

Active storage

Let’s be honest, though. Even the most cogently conceived and consistently applied collections policy is no match for the law of closets. Storage is an unavoidable part of life. It’s very unusual for a museum to have more than about 10 per cent of its holdings on view at any given time. Storage, however, doesn’t necessarily mean dead space. Curators work closely with registrars to ensure that collections remain active, through gallery rotations and touring exhibitions, and, most importantly in recent years, through digital access.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where I used to work, has more than . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

11 August 2021 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

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