“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part Two

Curation, stuff, people, meanings. Fear of change vs fear of irrelevance. Framing debates and the need for new frames. That was Part One of this series in a nutshell. Getting through it without answering snark with more snark was more of a challenge than I expected, so what had been one really long post with a happy ending got split into two posts. For background framing of the curation/participation issue, go back and read it. It features a picture from I Can Haz Cheezeburger, so it’s worth it.

In this post, I’d like to look more at examples of work people are doing that take on issues around curation, and maybe serve as exemplars. I’ll start with some provocative thoughts that are a wonderful antidote to the pearl-clutching tone of some of the other recent articles, then we’ll finally explore two of the smallest museums that I referenced at the beginning of Part One.

Let your voice be heard!

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library
Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone.
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

In response to my first post, Seb Chan from Cooper Hewitt offered another possible way forward: clearer voice, than the standard 20th century disembodied “institutional voice” that is still prevalent in the field. I’m just going to repost big chunks of it because it’s that good:

“My view is increasingly that museums need opinions, and that means that more than ever their exhibitions benefit from being opinionated. Sometimes the opinion that needs to be stated is that of those voices least frequently heard in museums (some – but not all – participatory exhibit projects might fall into this category) and well served by ‘community sourcing’, but other times it’s a need to have an upfront, loud, curatorial voice.”

I think this perceived lack of voice often afflicts participatory projects, which is why they get characterized as messy and chaotic. The Memory Jars project at the Museum of Art and History at Santa Cruz or Object Stories at Portland Art Museum I think ar egood examples of projects where visitors’ voices come through loud and clear, which may be why I like them. The perceived lack of loud curatorial voices reminded me of Max Anderson’s 2011 “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” which included this gem, “One solution is for art historians and curators to devote more pages and column inches to explaining why art matters and why it should move us, and to be less patronizing about the relevance of our discipline just because the public does not see the point.” Amen, brother!

And lest you start feeling smug, I think that admonition applies to us all, not just art historians. If your audience doesn’t get what you’re doing, is it the audience’s fault, or your museum’s?

Interpreting the language of objects
This communication problem ties into the curation/participation dynamic. Often, the adherents of traditional practice take a dim view of interpretation of any stripe. They want straight curatorial wisdom and nothing else. “Let the objects speak for themselves” is a refrain I’ve heard more than once. And I think it’s all well and good, if your audience is an already-informed one, like say art critics, and fellow museum professionals. If the audience includes people who don’t already speak that language (be it art, or science, or history, or whatever), then not so well. Seb, in his comment,  continued,

“The big caveat being that that voice needs to be able to heard and understood by a significant proportion of the visitors to be valuable (cue “more interpretation”, “better exhibition design”, “exhibition design as coherent argument”, “audience research” etc). Curation has to be more than just ‘choosing’. When its done well, it is, and obviously so. Too often what is celebrated by those against more participatory activities in museums are opaque exhibitions with curatorial arguments obfuscated with a thick dose of International Art English.”

I agree completely. Curation as a form of sense-making requires strong interpretation. Regan Forrest published a great, short post on the language of objects [http://reganforrest.com/2014/10/the-language-of-objects/] that picked apart this question of interpretation that’s worth reading. She notes that ,

“the ‘objects are mute’ vs ‘objects speak for themselves’ debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.”

I like the model of the “language of objects” being spoken with a strong voice, and interpreted for an audience who may not be fluent in that language. Unfortunately, interpretation often gets a bad reputation as “pandering”. I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago and the world hasn’t progressed far since then.  Regan Forrest and I bounced the idea back and forth across a couple of blog posts, in which she asked the question,  When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?” Striking that balance is hard. Which made me wonder about other interesting models people are pursuing that come at curation in interesting ways.

Here are two examples that were at my famers market last weekend. One thing that unites the two is that both try to take the museum experience outside of the museum and meet visitors where they already are, and invert the model of the visit. Another is their clear, definitely opinionated curatorial stance.

The Mµseum

The Mµseum  image fr http://tinymuseum.org/2013/11/01/photos-from-the-desert-places-opening/
The Mµseum
image fr http://tinymuseum.org/2013/11/01/photos-from-the-desert-places-opening/

The Mµseum opened in 2010 in Union Square, not far from my house. Billed as the world’s smallest museum, it occupies a niche in a wall between a sub shop and a restaurant in a busy pedestrian square. Judith Krausner and Steve Pomeroy wanted a way to showcase the works of regional artists in an intimate setting that was also free of the constraints of getting into a gallery or museum space. Why not make a space where people already were, and bring the museum experience to them? Thus was born the Mµseum.

Go to their website and you’ll see their program, though truly tiny in scale, has all the hallmarks of a traditional museum endeavor, and boasts a very clear voice. Their statement about “accessibility” reads, We want art to be something that is approachable to everyone. By bringing art right up to the viewer, in an unstaffed, pressure-free environment (a place you’d be anyway, just walking down the street!), we hope to make art both physically and psychologically approachable.” They want people walking down the street to stop and see some art made by artists working in the area. Somerville, MA apparently has the largest number of working artists per capita of any municipality in the United States, so there’s no shortage of materials.

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers' Market in Somerville, MA
The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Somerville, MA

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts is the brainchild of Laurelin Kruse, a California-based artist and arts educator. After a brief stint at the Calder Foundation, she became fascinated by the way a single person’s life could become the focus of so many people’s work; collecting, cataloguing, conserving every little scrap, no matter how quotidian. What about the artiacts of ordinany Americans, the countless stories and lives that surround us? Who was going to find, collect *their* objects and stories? Thus was MMoAA born, and it’s curator.

After finding a suitable gallery space (a converted 1968 Cardinal camper), and kickstarting its retrofitting, Kruse set out from California, stopping along the way for brief periods of time, setting up shop, and soliciting objects and stories. By the time we met in Somerville, she’d already been across the country once, and was preparing to lay up for the winter before setting out west again.   The Museum, big enough to hold three or four adults comfortably, can be visited in a few minutes, more if you use the video booth. Though she’s collected quite a bit, the exhibition is well laid out; not too many objects, labels that tell a complete story quickly. They hint at the lives that intersected with them, and some are quite powerful; a bundle of love letters from the 1910s, found in the attic of a house, bits of soap made by a woman with her long-dead grandmother during yearly summer visits, now long past. A knife given by a junkie to the bus driver who drove him to rehab. These little narratives

The MMoAA, like the Mµseum, the Museum of Broken Relationships, and others, I think reflects the current increase in interest in curation as a democratizing force and a counter-narrative to the perceived aloofness of museums as institutions. They all say “This happened! It was important to the people involved!”, the same impulse as Kennicott’s “struggle against oblivion”.

What are other examples you’ve come across that are innovative models of modern curation?



  1. At Arizona State Museum we’ve done some interesting things to both involve members of specific communities in interpretation and also engage the general public with ideas presented in our exhibit of Edward S. Curtis’s photographs of American Indians. The initial exhibit, Reframing Curtis, was co-curated by the museum’s curator of photographs with a Native American art historian. Comments about the images were solicited from other Native scholars, museum professionals and artists. A related outreach project involved Native high school students in researching Curtis photos, exploring the students’ own identity and how they express identity, and then in creating photographs that became an online and on the wall (traveling) exhibit, Photo ID: Portraits by Native Youth. The exhibit invites viewers to add their own selfies to an Instagram stream #ASMcurtis, #PhotoID. The museum also invited 13 Native artists to respond to the work of Edward S. Curtis (showcasing 23 pieces made in various media) for a companion exhibit, Regarding Curtis. In addition, we held various openings, a panel discussion and a day of art-making by young Native graphite artists with some hands-on activities. Works by the graphite artists are also on display in the museum in an exhibit called Neogliphix. The paintings created during the public day are still on the museum lawn and will find homes in other locations soon (They are large 10ft by 10ft. wooden boxes painted on all sides.) While guided by the museum’s “curatorial” skills, the four shows all taken together present diverse voices and interpretations of the Curtis work, and hopefully prompt viewers to think deeply, question how they look at images of and work by and about others, and respond in their own ways–to join in the conversation. This is a powerful example of community engagement, or collaboration, that is not a crowdsource example. One is not better than the other, simply different windows to understanding art, history, culture, and engagement with museums.


    1. Hi Lisa,

      Great example, especially for its combination of curation alongside visitor participation. Part of my beef with “Crowdsourced” is that it tends to get used for anything participatory, and they’re not the same thing. Thanks for sharing it!


  2. Ed, it’s Laurelin with the Mobile Museum of American Artifacts here.

    Thanks for your excellent posts, which re-framed in a greater context many questions I constantly ask myself about my project.

    Many of the points you raise are dead on. I think it’s important to distinguish between “crowdsourced curation” and “crowdsourced material.”

    I think the challenge in participatory projects is how to make the results of participation relevant to other audience members. What’s the point of participation if people aren’t listening to each other, truly engaging, and paying attention to each other’s contributions? I think many participatory projects ask people to look within themselves, but don’t do a very good job of engaging people in looking at each other. My biggest goal with the Mobile Museum of American Artifacts is to create something that’s engaging whether someone is participating as a contributor or as a viewer.

    MMoAA is currently seeking hosts across the U.S. for 2015. The museum will be traveling from Massachusetts to Colorado. For spring/summer MMoAA is looking for host institutions in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana. In the fall we’ll be in the Southwest. Let me know if you have any ideas!


    1. Hi Laurelin,

      Thanks for stopping by! It was great to see the MMoAA in action, and I look forward to seeing how your tour progresses. I love your point about getting visitors in participatory projects to look at each other, and not just their contribution.

      I’ll email you with suggestions for museums you might want to contact. Readers in any of these states, now’s your chance to host Laurelin and the MMoAA!


  3. Thank you for your own process of care taking in this two-part essay–you have curated a range of dialogue and action around the issue of interpretation in an articulate package. I’d like to add my new book to your collection: Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era (by Lynne Conner, published by Palgrave Macmillan). My thesis is a simple one: the pleasure of the arts-going experience is deeply tied up with the opportunity to interpret the meaning and value of the art work, and that pleasure is enhanced when the meaning-making process is a social one. “Arts Talk” connotes not just literal talk, but also a spirit of vibrant learning through conversation (live and digital) among and between people who share an interest in the arts. Arts Talk connects us in the profoundest of human ways—as hearts and minds looking to make the world mean something. What the traditional journalists, critics and curators are missing (or denying) in their anxious critiques of participatory actions is the basic social impulse of art making and art sharing.


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