by Tehmina Goskar
In November 2017 I had the pleasure of teaching a class to Helsinki Museum Studies Students. The session was about finding hidden stories from our cultural collections and tested a new philosophy and methodology for curating based on awareness and asking good questions.
But surely awareness of context and good research questions are a natural part of curating? Well it should be but very often our museums will prioritise one voice and a one-way conversation over a two-way conversation and multiple ideas and voices. It is my belief, and that of the Curators Institute, that the multiplicity of curatorial voices and investigative techniques leads to more inspiring, entertaining and ultimately thought-provoking interpretation.
Knowledge and power
Students heard about how museums construct their power through building and disseminating information and stories based on their collections. The model below is a simple demonstration of how this power is created, and amplified, if not in reality, certainly in the minds of curators. However, it is the way this power is shared with museum users, whether they are local and digital communities, visitors or communities of interest (diverse people who unite around a common passion for something).
As a curator it is your job to find and tell hidden stories and then to permit the user/visitor to make their own meaning – and please remember to reply.
Model of museum power (T. Goskar, 2017)
From theory to practice
The theory behind these ideas are based on five approaches to material culture and humanity’s relationship with it. Each approach provoked a different idea about museum objects: the archaeologist’s perspective on giving a voice to artefacts because they cannot speak for themselves (Grierson, 1959); the anthropologist’s method of tracing the life-story or biography of an object (Kopytoff, 1988); constructions of narratives through taxonomy giving the sensation (or illusion) of civilisation (Braudel, 1979, 1981); the artificial division of art and science (Obrist, 2015)—and this is especially keenly felt in the practice of curating which is heavily dominated by the fine art world; and finally ways of seeing as magisterially put forward by John Berger (1972)—and certainly the thinker that has had most influence on me. The key message I share with everyone I teach about curating is that self-awareness of our learned assumptions is absolutely critical to the success of our practice.
With this grounding in the big ideas that surround museums and material culture, it was time for practice. What is obvious to you may not be to your colleagues or audience. The best tools you can use to get the best out of museum collections is to learn how to ask open questions to find out those hidden stories:
- The biography or the life cycle of the object before it came into the museum (creation, ownership, use)
- The existing knowledge about the object and its contexts
- The relevance of the object to diverse people (then and now)
Open questions start with these words, and here are some examples:
- What … is it made of?
- How … was it used?
- Where …. has it travelled?
- When … was it restored?
- Who … would donated or sold it to the museum?
- Why …. would someone from my community be interested in this?
A range of students brought in an object that was meaningful to them (or a photo). It was wonderful to witness the workshop in action among the students who had come from such a wide variety of backgrounds, bringing with them their own talents, know-how and interests. This diversity really came through in their presentations and in the questions that were asked.
This was an exercise in taking a person-centred approach to interpretation. Rather than see their objects as remote and other, they interpreted them to their colleagues as things that represented a story, a moment in life or a place that held meaning for them. As a consequence, the questions that were asked of them became more meaningful, more about creating resonance and mutual appreciation than just about imparting terse technical information such as the title, artist, medium and date of a painting.
Examples of the empathy created during the two-way conversations that took place were Neha’s sil batta – a kind of rolling pin for crushing and grinding to make pastes – leading to discussion about food, and feelings of longing for home and about ancestors and heirlooms. A pilgrimage certificate promoted stories of journeys and achieving goals. An 8-bit Sega Mastersystem cartridge conjured memories of childhood when it was already considered ‘retro’. This was a big part of its appeal. What was life like for young people growing up without the internet?
Walter’s replica Viking lock took a surprising turn once the class had marvelled at its workmanship and physicality. Who made it? It was Walter who made it, 10 years ago, while volunteering in the smithy of a Viking museum. Looking for more meaning in his life than he was getting at school, working at the museum gave him a new passion which he holds to this day.
Such richness of interpretation encouraged the class to have more conversations with each other. It felt like the large gap that many experience between themselves and the museums they use, work in or visit, will begin to narrow once these and other students apply their experience of their course to their practice.
Dr. Tehmina Goskar FMA
Director & Curator