Curating History

It’s been another odd week, with the strikes across the university. However, we have taken the opportunity to put research into practice, and we also met between ourselves for a seminar of sorts. Within any cultural institution, it is critical to find vibrancy within (and sometimes in spite of) the institutional frame. And, since universities are imbricated as cultural institutions in the UK, we have attempted to cultivate this vibrancy despite the frame in which we find ourselves, in a practice of passionate thinking, radical empathy, and resistance of interior institutionalisation.

Radical Empathy and Passionate Thinking
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In a complement to the work earlier in the week, we found ourselves (during the one seminar we were able to attend) discussing the influence of marketing departments in institutions, taking Herbert Muschamp’s claim that this sector ‘now has more power than the curators in certain decision-making areas’.[1] I find it interesting that the marketing value of a ‘thing’ can be seen as having more intrinsic value than the thing itself. It is important to look critically at, and question, the decision-making processes which take place.

There has been a move to evacuate, eviscerate, these ‘homes’ (places of art, culture performance) by pushing into a meta-level: almost creating a simulacrum of that which created the meaning in the first place. How do we find a space between the marketing-media-medium, when the media(medium) becomes the instrument of itself, and branding obscures the he/art? The further away from the he/art we are, the more distorted the image becomes.

There is the feeling that time itself is what needs to be protected: institutions need to protect the conditions for uncertainty. When there is such a focus on output/product/audience experience this gets put before the work. This reflects the situation of universities: university as a ghost - what is ‘really’ provided cannot be quantified, only experienced. Exams and grades provide quantifiable results in a gross parody of profits on the stock markets, yet experiential, qualitative results, cannot be measured and become the ghost in the institutional haunted house.

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The institutional frames are designed to dictate responses: for example, the layout of a gallery offers the illusion of freedom of movement, yet the space is set in such a way to funnel crowds through the curated story of an exhibition. The need is there, however, to question the presented story: what is this tale we are being told? What might an alternative narrative reveal? Is the exhibition, the space itself, conducting our conduct through an attempt to order chaos?

Institutions read back against their history to create (curate) a narrative to suit the present. What is valued in the frame of the institution does not confer value automatically: representation is not reality. For example, in the frame of a museum, objects stand in metonymically for an entire culture and history, in a literal objectification process, and value is assigned from the etic perspective: Othering a culture through a representation of their cultural creations.

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James Clifford writes that museums offer ‘magical, archaic objects as luminous examples of human creative genius.’[2] They offer the potential to reimagine culture, a sense of temporal dissonance, which displaces us from the quotidian. The theatricalization of exhibition (in the sense that they are curated, placed, according to the script the curator wishes to enact) presents opportunities to reform and reframe history, a Bakhtinian process of protesting and carnivalizing our present.

[1] Herbert Muschamp, ‘Art Institutions in Conflict Between Monoculture and Cosmopolitanism’ in The Discursive Museum, ed. Peter Noever (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2001) p.157.
[2] James Clifford, ‘On Collecting Art and Culture’ in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp.215-251 (p.242).


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