Curators and collectors making exhibitions
Dear Stephen, Sandy, Sarah, Kate and Roberta,
I very much enjoyed your presentations – thank you for sharing your research! My question relates to the specific ways in which those who are intimately engaged with collections as collectors and curators (like Soane, James and Nicol Smith) practice exhibition making in ways that are different to those practiced by professional design teams, or the other non-curators/collectors who were involved in making the displays you all explore. In my research on mid-century practice, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, there often seem to be battles between designers and curators, sometimes over this issue of object intimacy and understanding (although I have to say, this sense of division usually comes from the curator’s side!). Do you think there is a difference? Perhaps this is a false dichotomy? Roberta, Ernesto Rogers seems to hold a very interesting position at the intersection of these positions. Thoughts gratefully received. Claire Wintle
Nearest to Soane for me is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City made by David Wilson, the designer is also the curator and storyteller. The Cinema Museum in Torino works equally well because the curator knew the museum had to be cinematic and she has shared in making a ‘palace of dreams‘ with Francis Confine, the designer. In all these the result is a magical physical transformation and experience. It’s not conceived as a display of objects in cases with labels and text panels.
Many curators are held down by the intellectual milieu in which they train, over thought-out, and being essentially didactic when for the visitor the result is sensory as well as kinaesthetic, emotional etc. They can find it hard to make the transition from this comfort zone to storytelling and entering magical worlds. The best curators can. Working with BM curators, Ian Jenkins and Celeste Farge on the BM’s Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece was the perfect balance between creativity and scholarship. They let us transform their insights into a great story and recognised that an exhibition takes on its own landscape ands dynamic, in this case with ever-changing views of 3D pieces and a complex relationship between two sculptors, Rodin and Phaedias, 2500 years apart. That ‘frioendship’ was the hook for a great story.
Historian are much more natural story tellers to work with if you feel an exhibition has a narrative and isn’t just a display of objects chronologically, typologically by techniques and materials.
Does that help?
@stephen Hi Stephen, that’s really useful – thanks. I think that curators also have sensory, kinaesthetic and emotional experiences with their objects, but I completely take your point that designers are sometimes more focused on the visitor. There are some really interesting cases in the 1970s in the UK (at Bristol especially) where the designer (Mike Linehan) actually worked more as an outreach officer, setting up live community events with a really strong performance element, sometimes barely related to any physical exhibition at all. I wonder where you see Soane on the spectrum of intellectual/ ‘over-thought-out’ to storyteller par excellence? Thanks, Claire
Thanks Claire (sorry I've just managed to lose this reply twice over the last couple of days, so sorry if it's a bit garbled as typing in haste!) In the Zanzibar case, the archives just don't tell us very much about object intimacy unfortunately but there are some things we can infer. There doesn't seem to be a tension in the assistants creating the cases and the curators over this issue, the options were quite limited in many cases. It seems that they relied much more on educators and guides, and the guidebooks themselves to animate and create a sense of intimacy around the objects. It'd be fascinating to know what the Swahili population thought about the mock-up of one of their homes - whether this felt familiar, or was just a colonial imaginary version of their lives.
I did hear occasionally at the BM about the perceived tensions between designers and curators, but it depended who you spoke to..! Kate's work is so interesting in revealing more about this.
Thank you very much for your question. You do open up a very interesting issue re: specialisation / division of knowledge, (and the frictions it might sometimes cause) which, as far as I know, was simply not an option in Milan in the first half of the century.
People like Rogers were deeply invested in promoting the figure of the all-round intellectual, capable of bringing together both high-brow and popular culture and nurturing a dialogue between disciplines – between artists, journalists, doctors, philosophers, engineers, scientists and politicians. This convergence of interests was already a distinctive trait of Milanese culture during the fascist years, in the circles gathered around Quadrante, Domus and Casabella. And, in the years following the Second World War, as Umberto Eco noted, architects, urban planners, designers and editors came together as ‘the critics and interpreters of an industrial bourgeoisie with a radical-socialist inclination, trying on the one hand to master the problems of science, technology and industrial production, and on the other to modernise Italian visual culture’.
In this context, Rogers was able to move seamlessly between curating, writing, teaching and his architectural practice, constantly fusing politics, philosophy and culture in ways which are difficult to disentangle. In this sense I do not think he saw any need to set boundaries between the practice of design and that of curation.
Thank you again.
Thank you for your very interesting question.
As someone deeply connected to his collection and clear about its purpose, to inspire change in the way commercial art was perceived and raise standards of design, James used exhibition making as a means to express his own taste and views, rather than those of the museum. He managed to bi-pass traditional methods practiced by the museum’s curatorial departments, largely, I think because his collection was not viewed as scholarly (too commercial/ephemeral/modern). Also, because he had the support of director Maclagan, who approved the Jan Tschichold purchase and a reference to the collection in the museums' Review of Principal Acquisitions (1936 and 1937). Bringing commerce inside the museum to this extent was also unusual at this time.
James' education will have also played a part. His degree in Librarianship at UCL included Greek, French, cataloguing, indexing, classification and writing. It would have been important for him to contextualise and categorise his objects to explain his narrative, rather than present them solely for aesthetic appreciation.