Ah yes, museums. Institutions devoted to research, the acquisition of artwork, and showcasing of objects on a global scale. The stakes are high: The presentation of art can completely reshape its perception and understanding. This “presentation,” also known as curation, is a calculated, research-based approach to showcasing art. Position, lighting, color, cultural context, and wall labels impact this presentation. Because of this, curation is one of the most subtle yet influential aspects of museums. Without it, museums would just be storage spaces or libraries. There is an art to curation. And what is art but subjective?
While I myself am no curator, I am an art lover, art historian, and museum-goer, so, I have opinions on curation just like anyone else. I thought, why not act as a curator and take a closer look at it as a self-proclaimed ‘non-curator?’ At this point, the world of curation is exclusive and rather academic. It might be refreshing to hear a point of view from someone simply observing, which I might add, is the fundamental concept of curating in and of itself: to observe, relate, and present something within a specific context.
Similar to other areas of society, the origins of curation can be traced back to ancient Rome, Egypt, and Greece. These societies valued cultural objects and created libraries, treasuries, and museums. According to Medium, “In ancient times a curator was both someone who would take care of human souls as well as someone who managed and protected the material riches.”
During the middle ages, the preservation of religious artifacts gained the utmost importance. It was not until the Renaissance period that wealthy families began to collect and display art in what was commonly known as ‘cabinets of curiosity.’ The cabinets were curated pieces including arts and artifacts which often displayed rare and unique antiquities. These cabinets of curiosities were often juxtaposing artifacts that had never been seen before in these settings. At the time, it was groundbreaking.
Following the cabinets of curiosity, monarchs in the 16th and 17th centuries displayed portraits and sculptures as a way to proclaim their wealth and high-class standings. This marked a turning point in the deliberate use of art as a tangible representation of a person’s social standing. Because the way these artworks were displayed mattered.
Founding of Curation in Museums
The institutionalization of curated art spaces began in the 18th century, marking a shift in accessibility and public engagement. The first University museum was the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford which became publicly accessible in 1683. According to The Collector, “The Ashmolean was also the first public museum because it was publicly accessible. Visitors paid an entrance fee and entered the museum one by one, where they were shown through the collection by a keeper.” With the public museum came a huge shift in the field of curation. Curators play a crucial role as mediators between artworks and viewers, and the public museum led to an increased need for it to foster connections between people and art more than ever before.
Around this same time, curation became a profession. Archeology, anthropology, and art history became areas of expertise at major universities, and with that came the establishment of curation roles in museums.
Just with any form of expression, curation trends emerged alongside the expansion of museums. Some trends that seem to come and go but never quite leave are gallery walls (a style of hanging paintings), a myriad of vitrines sprinkled throughout the gallery rooms, mixtures of sculpture and painting, groupings of art and artifacts by geographic region, and finally, displaying objects from similar time periods. Many museums approach historic art this way, grouping ancient Greek, Roman, Asian, and African art in separate galleries throughout the museum.
In recent years, modern museum spaces tend to juxtapose ancient and modern. This seems to be a common trope curators view as “cutting-edge." Some museums pull it off while others seem to randomly “plunk” the new with the old, which ultimately lacks intention. I’ve seen this phenomenon intentionally executed when a curator pairs a Kehinde Wiley alongside a Renaissance work Wiley is deliberately calling to.. This example represents the power curation holds. The placement of artworks in certain contexts influences the viewer’s interpretation of it.k. By placing Wiley’s work in a room filled with Renaissance art—the style of art Wiley strategically redefines and reclaims in his work—a new line of thought is provoked, inviting the visitor to consider the connection between the two varying genres.
One more recent curation trend involves interactive visitor experiences. Places for visitors to reflect and provide feedback in museums allow for a sense of belonging and input.
Another exciting trend is the deconstruction of commonly understood historical narratives. One way museums do this is by being ‘label-conscious.” Works of art paired with brutally honest wall labels resist the long-standing “whitewashing” of history that has taken place in museums for hundreds of years.
Curation as Experimentation
As curation evolved, it’s became increasingly experimental. Artists and curators collaborate to create perplexing relationships between viewers and artworks.
In 1992, curator and artist Fred Wilson changed the curation game forever. At the Maryland Historical Society, Wilson installed Mining the Museum, an exhibition that recontextualized several of the museum’s objects to challenge predetermined ideas of race and history. In one of his installations, Wilson strategically placed silver pitchers and goblets with a pair of iron shackles used on enslaved people to spark a new meaning. Generally, these objects would never be witnessed in the same context. However, Wilson had other plans. The pairing of these objects reminds the viewer of the individuals (enslaved people) who produced these finer delicacies due to forced labor. Wilson’s installation serves as a reminder of the power curation holds. Without literally saying anything, Wilson said it all by juxtaposing intentional objects with applicable cultural significance.
Including More Voices
Museums are increasingly recognizing the importance of including a variety of voices in curation processes. Although it is less common for curators to seek advice from non-experts, it is becoming more widely accepted. Institutionalized museums generally rely on established curators for co-curation input, however, I hope for a shift towards greater inclusion of outside voices such as art committees and community members involved in curating objects that pertain to those communities.
Digital Curation: Virtual Tours
Digital museum exhibitions and virtual tours are revolutionizing the curated art experience. Extending museums to online platforms allows visitors from all over the world to experience art in new ways. Eventually, this shift may reshape the role of the curator as visitor experiences beyond in-person viewing is now possible. While online art exhibitions are not the same as an in-person experience, digitized art spaces create new possibilities for viewers and curators alike.
Curation is constantly evolving and ever-changing, curators continue to play a critical role in the education and interpretation of objects and artworks all over the world. While trends may come and go, curation is clearly here to stay, working to educate and spark inspiring conversation and thought about the world of our past and future.
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