Archives for October 2006

Digitized museum collections and intellectual property

Researchers at the New York Law School are working on a whitepaper that addresses the intersection of digitized museum collections and the law. From the project site:

The Digital Museums Project is dedicated to the examination of legal and policy issues relating to the digitized activity of museums. The members of this project will produce a whitepaper analyzing the current digitized cultural property models under different systems of law. The research will mainly cover the intellectual property issues raised by digitizing museum collections. Team members also intend to consider attitudes towards distribution and reproduction of content, public access rights, artist rights, digital rights management schemes, business & technology models, licensing models and digital cultural heritage. Special attention will be given to the effect these issues have on developing countries. This analysis will focus on shaping the legal rights and duties that accompany the current digitized cultural property models and the team will propose alternatives to these models, if necessary. The primary component of the research will be satisfied through networking with members of the art and law community. Supporting research will be completed through examination of legal doctrine.

The site also includes a questionnaire the research team will be using in its interviews of professional in the fields of art and law.

This is definitely a valuable project worth keeping track of.

Do you qualify as a curator?

Lately I’ve been pondering the question, “Who qualifies to be a curator?” I suppose I’ve been thinking about this issue since I first walked into a museum as a child, looked up at a dinosaur mount, and thought, “I want to get my hands on that!”

Michelle Kasprzak’s post “Agile and open – DiY Curating” renewed my interest in grappling with this issue. Kasprzak observes that “the very definition of ‘curator’ is certainly more open than it used to be,” and points us toward an article, “Do-it-yourself curators create art opportunities in out-of-the-way places,” in the October 10 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The article in the P-I shares the stories of several young freelance curators who have mounted exhibits in places as diverse as a university gallery, bars, Second Life, and the back of a U-Haul truck.

Reading the article, I was particularly intrigued by a comment by Fionn Meade, assistant curator for public programs and outreach for the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery. “We have to be flexible,” he said, “about where we organize shows and what kind of shows they are. I’m thinking about a publication as a project space, not for reviews but to create an arena of provocation and response.”

Democratizing the exhibition for viewers and curators: rethinking exhibition spaces

I’m a big believer in setting up exhibits in such a way that people view them on their own terms, in the context of their everyday lives. That may mean creating exhibits in places where people stumble upon them, say in a doctor’s office waiting room, while waiting for their number to be called at the local Department of Motor Vehicles, or even setting exhibits into the hardscape as was done with two installations related to the life of Angeleno Biddy Mason, House of the Open Hand and Biddy Mason’s Place: A Passage of Time. For that reason, I love the idea of staging an exhibit in the back of a U-Haul truck.

I also like the concept of producing an exhibit in publication form. No, it’s not a substitute for standing before an actual painting, 3D work of art, or historical artifact, but being able to take an exhibition with me to page through at my leisure really appeals to me. I’d consider it an exhibition catalogue without an exhibition site.

In such a view, the Internet becomes a legitimate space for an exhibition. Collectors, or anyone with photos they have th right to publish, can set up virtual galleries. One particularly well-done example of this phenomenon in blog format is Artists and Ancestors – A Miniature Portrait Collection. In its organization, this exhibit mirrors ones in the physical world: it has an exhibition catalogue, an explanation of the collection’s focus, and historical background on miniature portraits. However, online curators need not be tied to the traditional, relatively linear or room-by-room progress of exhibits.

Another fine example of online curation is the Los Angeles Conservancy’s exhibit Curating the City: Wilshire Blvd. Although this exhibit explores a place that is physically linear–Los Angeles’s Wilshire Boulevard–it allows visitors to explore locations along the street in the order than makes sense to them. It also provides a search function for people wanting information on a particular building. What I especially like about Curating the City is that although it’s evident a lot of technical resources went into the making of this online exhibit, it provides a model for freelance historians (if there are such beasts) that is largely lacking in the coffeehouse and bar contexts of the freelance art curators profiled in the Seattle P-I article. Anyone with a camera, a bit of Web savvy, and access to a library, historical society, or residents could curate an exhibition on just about any urban, suburban, or small town street.

Who gets to curate?

As I mentioned in my previous post, at a recent conference I heard Christiaan Klieger of the Oakland Museum of California talk about challenges facing curators who aim to represent as broad a sample of their constituency as possible. Klieger declared that this project will only be successful if curators are willing to give up some of their authority to “facilitators,” community stakeholders who have more lived knowledge of the group being represented than do the curators.

There is already a history of museums allowing community members temporary authority to select the objects for an exhibition. A recent example of this is Gems of the Collection: Community as Curator at San Antonio’s Witte Museum. The San Antonio Express-News provides an explanation:

Everything on display was selected by community curators — everyday folk who answered a Witte survey.

Opening Saturday, it presents 80 exceptional artifacts — paintings, gems, minerals, textiles, furniture, gowns and one-of-a-kind objects — that have stayed in the memory banks of loyal Witte supporters.

The Witte opened in October 1926. That’s a lot of memories for visitors, and some of them are plain weird — from shrunken heads to a stolen diamond.

The most popular items, however, are more palatable, truly historic and include a bejeweled ivory elephant, Fiesta gowns, swords, American Indian artifacts, ceramics, Jose Arpa’s Rose Window, a ghost dance dress from Wounded Knee, stuffed birds, extinct mounted animals and much more.

It’s all about nostalgia, revelation, enlightenment and wonder, according to organizers.

Whether such an exhibition qualifies as curation is up for debate. Curation includes more than merely selecting objects or asking people to nominate pieces for an exhibition. I do like the sense of serendipity that arises from such a method of assembling an exhibit, and I wish I could visit the museum myself. That said, is the Witte’s process really curation? I’m not convinced it is.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I think community members shouldn’t be involved in creating exhibits. Far from it. In fact, I’d like to see more community participation, especially in the form of freelance curators like those described in the Seattle P-I article: people who are on the margins of their professional community, who may have alternative views of art and culture, and who have a tremendous energy and passion for their work.

What makes a curator? And could you be one?

Traditionally, a curator has been someone trained to acquire, identify, assess the value of, and catalogue objects as well as present a selection of these objects in exhibitions. Curators may (and usually do) have additional administrative responsibilities as well.

At heart, however, a curator is simply someone who is, or has the ability to become, an authority on a subject or a connoiseur of a class of objects. The best curators are passionate people with research skills and a knack for storytelling.

Do you fit this description? What might you curate? And who would be your audience?

Further online reading:

/seconds issue on curating.

Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems by Joasia Krysa.

Round-up of American Studies Association session on curating and community

Last week I attended an American Studies Association conference session titled “Curating Community: Navigating the Terrain between the Museum World and the Communities.” I left the panel once again considering the big question that has been on my mind for some time: Who gets to be a curator? What counts as curatorial work?

The panel featured Christiaan Klieger, Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, Holly Alonso, and Raymond Codrington. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for speaker bios.) The panel was among the best at the conference, and I admit my notes on it are sketchy because I was so much absorbed in the panelists’ talks that I didn’t want to miss a moment while taking too many notes.

A running theme throughout the session was how to engage meaningfully with the community during curation while still creating a high-quality exhibition. The concern was not so much that community input into an exhibition would water down or somehow sully the content–in fact, the speakers clearly felt quite the opposite was true. Rather, these leaders seemed worried that others in the museum profession didn’t share their enthusiasm for true community involvement in exhibitions or for projects that begin in the lives of community members.

As an example of such a project, Codrington spoke of how he used popular culture, in particular hip hop, to draw people who traditionally weren’t interested in museum programming to cultural events celebrating art, music, and community in Los Angeles. Alonso spoke about the necessity of welcoming children to the Peralta Hacienda because children playing on the Hacienda’s grounds may draw their families to the site’s events. LeFalle-Collins discussed her year working with the Museum of the African Diaspora, a project that, as you might imagine, required her to think very broadly about community.

In his talk, Klieger wondered aloud if it was possible for a museum to function without curators and their (to the public) mysterious ways of determining what belongs in an exhibit and how to best interpret those objects. He asked if it might be possible to use community facilitators instead. He argued that curators must learn to give up at least some, if not most, of their authority.

He asked what training qualifies a curator to serve as the sole filter for the stories of 36 million living Californians and asked that we consider who, among many possible gatekeepers, might be best qualified to decide which stories to feature in a museum. One solution he proposed was to provide stations within galleries where visitors could engage with the exhibits and each other in meaningful ways. I wasn’t sure what form Klieger was suggesting these stations take, but I agreed with Klieger’s declaration that it’s time to go beyond the visitor comment cards that curators rarely have time to read. Klieger also mentioned alternative ways visitors might engage with the museum’s exhibits, for example through audio commentaries delivered via cell phone or mp3 player.

LeFalle also spoke of her new online project, the Open Door Contemporary Art Program (ODCAP), which is set to launch any day now at Through this virtual gallery, developed using open source software, LeFalle-Collins hopes to change long-held community assumptions about artists and curators through shifting curatorial practice to an online space. It’s not clear to me–because of gaps in my notes, not because of LeFalle-Collins’s talk–whether ODCAP will involve community members as curators or whether its goal is rather to make the process of curation more transparent to the community. Regardless, I’m excited about the project, and I’m checking its URL regularly in anticipation of its launch.

A quick web search turned up bios of the session’s speakers:

Dr. Codrington “is a cultural anthropologist whose work brings popular culture into non-traditional settings by collaborating with artists, educators, museums, and community based organizations. His expertise uses hip hop and popular culture as a tool to generate new approaches to developing exhibits, research, and public programs. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and museums nationwide. Dr. Codrington is the author of numerous publications and is currently working on his forthcoming book on the globalization of hip hop culture.”

Dr. LeFalle-Collins is the owner of LeFalle Curatorial. She “is an independent scholar/art historian/curator and owner of LeFalle Curatorial a curatorial and research firm in Oakland, CA. She earned her Ph.D. in the History of Art from the University of California, Los Angeles with an emphasis on American Modernism. Her present research focuses on painting and assemblage art from the 1960s forward.”

Dr. Klieger is senior curator and chair of the history department at the Oakland Museum of California.

Holly Alonso is executive director of the Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park.