Creating an exhibition means curating meaning. Curating is all about identifying connections between any given objects that could create dialogues with the viewer. The majority of institutions/ organisations in the world invest in having a curator or curatorial team, that focus on creating displays for a targeted audience in order to attract and engage with more viewers.
What differentiates each institution comes down to objectives and values, regulated by the curatorial practice. Take for example the Tate Britain in comparison to Tate modern, both UK institutions based in London that are within the same network of galleries; yet one is known for its British art collection, shown within a historical curatorial display and the latter is known as UK’s modern art museum that focuses in creating thematic displays and temporary artists retrospectives. Viewers would visit either institution based on what’s on display and their preferences.
Tate Britain Collection , Photo © Lee Mawdsley, artfund.org
Tate Modern Installation view of Pop Myths, Photo © Tate Photography, artfund.org
To an extent, a curated display has the potential to behold a sense of power over the viewer, and it’s broken down to a cultural and aesthetic scope of personal interests. The viewers could be more accurately described as the beholders, as they become cultural consumers of the carefully curated meaning of strategically staged displays. Thinking about how we, as viewers, look at a display and its emotional impact, it is important to identify the conversation or relation between the viewer and object viewed. There have been many theories on the conventions of looking, but the one to keep in mind here is Jacques Lacan’s theory of the gaze; for which the gaze relates to the psychoanalytic theory of self-awareness in relation to one looking and being looked at. As stated ‘the gaze becomes the object in the act of looking…When the subject looks at an object, the object is always already gazing back at the subject…the gaze is that which permits the subject to realize that the Other is also a subject.'(1 )
Expanding on this theory and exploring the concept of how everyone’s knowledge is partial and subjective to personal history and background, an object within an institution is subjected to personal interpretation from various points of view. Objects are constantly being viewed within ‘new’ context and content, within a different situation hence making it possible for the viewers to read and interpret it in their way, ‘the museum was by turns presented as a technology of panoptic mastery and the disciplinary gaze.(2) This is a direct presentation of what constitutes curatorial power. A simple attempt to create visual connections and dialogues between objects, to encourage the construction of perceptions around the subject-matter they mean to convey. Perceptions that derive from the indirect relationship between object and idea.
A curated display of objects has the potential to represent multiple and complex perspectives unique to each viewer. Thus a curator’s power is only as strong as the relationship between the displayed objects when viewed through a plethora of viewers with geographical, chronological and subjective differences. A curator’s role is broken down to strategic planning and being able to successfully present to the viewer different conditions of looking and seeing. In other words, the curation of objects is all about the construction of individual meanings through the interrelation of different cultures and values.
To fully understand the meaning of curating in today’s world we need to acknowledge its history and how it impacted collections and exhibitions through the centuries. Going back to the 16th-century is when the idea of showing a collection of objects as a collective emerged. The Cabinets of Curiosities was simply a way by which materials were organised and presented to inspire the viewer; objects, re-arranged for knowledge and education purposes. This could be identified as the beginning of the modern convention of viewing and curatorial practices. The need to identify and acknowledge a collection sparked the idealization of objects of cultural importance we know today, which led to the establishment of the institutionalised viewing platforms such as the Paris Salons of the 18th-century. The most important thing in the room was the display and the viewer was only a passive figure within the space.
Cabinet of Curiosities, Photo © Massimo Listri Taschen, taschen.com
Paris Salon, Louvre’s Department of Decorative Arts Photo © 2014 Musée du Louvre, Paris
Contradicting the 18th century displays, curating nowadays has changed dramatically. The viewer is no longer static and the eye does not behold the sole privilege of experiencing art. The need for the viewer to view and experience a collection in different ways signified the evolution of the white cube phenomenon as we know it today. Display spaces are no longer overfilled with cultural, artistic and ethnographic content.The white cube idea changed the environment and shifted the attention to how the objects are displayed in order to be viewed and experienced in better ways. ‘Since then this cube has functioned as a neutral area which can thus be filled subjectively and where the works of art can be constantly re-arranged to form new ensembles.
The use of white, which has become a traditional feature of the museum by now…levels out everything within its preserve, and in a totalitarian way it erases differences to form a single entity…the so-called white cube liberated modern art from its common association with decadence, insanity sensuality and feminine frivolity; simultaneously, it revealed the inherent masculinity and authoritarian character of formalist aesthetics.(3)
Thus institutions shifted their attention from solely educating and informative purposes to personal reflection. The viewer’s presence in the space becomes a necessity. Seeing an object now means experiencing its texture, medium and physical capacity within the context of the space and its surroundings. A display is a conversation in which objects often provoke perceptions other than the obvious visual image, and viewers become points of reference. It is about coordinating the viewer’s presence in the context of the exhibition; an Avant-guardian idealization of the observer as the subject as well as the object. The public’s understanding of the object involves feeling, noticing and moving around within the space as well as seeing, ‘the viewer feels. The observer notices. The spectator moves.’(4) It triggers all senses beyond sight, which is why many institutions have started to adapt and allow viewers to touch objects as well as view them. Therefore the meaning of the display does not reside within the object or the image, it is created as and when it is viewed and experienced by the viewers.
White cube, Photo © 2019 White Cube Bermondsey, London
To acknowledge the significance of the curator one could do the following experiment.
Next time you visit an institution, this could be a museum, a gallery space, or anywhere with a collection of objects or art on display, fully immerse in the space by looking around carefully and ask yourself the following questions :
- What does the institution mean for oneself?
- Is it the white walls, the shiny floor, or the spotlight lighting from above?
- Could it be the cubish, steel presence of the space or is it the metaphorical or cultural meaning the institution can convey?
- Does the concept of the institution have to do more with the physical presence of objects or the ideas of what the object could represent?
Pick a section or a collection of objects within the space and focus your attention on them.
- Can you identify any visual connections between objects on display?
- Why did you pick this particular section within the display? Is it something that appealed to you visually or emotionally?
- Can you notice how other viewers look at the section you selected?
- Read any text or leaflets that may be around, does that expand on your knowledge or perception or is it something completely new to you?
- Ask a member of staff (if around) for more information, did you learn something new?
- Start a conversation with another viewer, do they have a different understanding of the display?
Once you leave the space, take the time to gather your thoughts on your experience. Share your thoughts with someone else and ask them to visit the same institution and do the same experience.
- Ask if you noticed the same things
- Did they pick the same selection as you?
- Did they learn something new?
- Compare the differences between your experience and their experience.
- How did they feel about the space? Did you have the same emotional impact?
Each person will have a different experience that is unique to oneself, yet it is always based on the same source; the emotional impact it creates for each person. Objects are usually treated like assets and are appointed with the meaning the institution wants them to have, even so, it is important to understand that any display can succeed despite the institutional space and not because of it. Any object can simply elaborate on the visual image of the display and enhance the display as a collective. In turns what favours exhibition-making is the viewer’s emotional response to the curated meaning of a collection or a response to what’s been viewed. With this in mind, we come to question the importance of the space and how the object’s value has the potential to change depending on public responses. Objects demand to be experienced by the public for its physicality and materiality through physical encounters so that there is clear communication of the work within the space. After all, the most important role of a collection is to be shown, to be viewed and to be perceived; and the institution’s main function is to provide the means of display, allowing ordinary people to see extraordinary things.
About the author:
Anastasia Papaonisiforou is a London based exhibitions expert with an MA in Curating and Collections and a background in Fine Arts. She is our oldest patron and graciously accepted to cover this topic for Local Approach; she is available to give advice on discord through our “Let’s talk about your heritage!” membership, upon specific request.
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I want to learn more:
Battcock Gregory (1973 1st ed. 1966) The New Art: a critical anthology, New York, Dutton & Co.
Cavell Stanley (1979 1st ed. 1971). In the world viewed, Cambridge, Harvard University Press
Greenberg, R., Ferguson, B. and Nairne, S. (1996). Thinking about exhibitions. London: Routledge
Kuoni, C. (2001). Words of wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum. New York: Independent Curators International.
O’Doherty, B. (1999). Inside the white cube. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of looking. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
(1) Evans Dylan, (1996). An introductory Dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis, London, Routledge
(2) Duncan C. (1995) Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public art museum, London: Routledge
(3) Greenberg, R., Ferguson, B. and Nairne, S. (1996). Thinking about exhibitions. London: Routledge.
(4) O’Doherty, B. (1999). Inside the white cube. The Ideology of the gallery space. Berkeley: University of California Press.