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Curators and the Participatory Challenge

Posted By Dawn Reid, Curatorial Assistant, Decorative Arts and Design, Carnegie Museum of Art, Monday, July 22, 2013

Of all the sessions at AAMC’s 2013 symposium in New York, I found "Museums and Civic Responsibility” and "Participation, Engagement, and the Curator” to be the most thought provoking. These presentations also generated a great deal of discussion post-panel. I was surprised by some colleagues who expressed unease or even felt threatened by the models presented. In my opinion, civic responsibility and participatory engagement does not intrinsically spell the end of the curator.

Exhibition ideas are typically generated by curators, but curators can and should be much more than just "content providers.” Exhibition design at my institution, and I imagine at most other museums, is a highly collaborative process. Educators help curators refine and focus interpretation in a way that will allow visitors to maximize their engagement with and connection to the art. Taking into account aesthetics and accessibility, designers help to create the physical environment in which the visitor will experience the artwork. The curator should be involved in every step of this process. Indeed, at many smaller institutions, the curator might play multiples roles.

My point is that curators should not feel as if they are in competition with educators, designers, marketing professionals, or any other museum colleagues. Ostensibly we are all after the same goal: to create dynamic and engaging exhibitions that inspire a love of art. In order to do that, curators must design exhibitions for visitors, not their fellow curators.

It goes back to the simple questions that occupy us on a daily basis: what are museum for? Why do they matter? The simple preservation of artifacts and dissemination of scholarly knowledge will not sustain museums into the future. As Stephen Weil remarked in his 2002 publication Making Museums Matter, "museums matter only to the extent that they are perceived to provide the communities they serve with something of value beyond their mere existence.” Museums must make themselves relevant. Otherwise, they run the risk of becoming obsolete.

Today’s museums cannot simply inform their audiences; they must inspire, engage, and challenge them as well. The digital age has profoundly changed audience expectations for participation. Today’s visitors demand a richer experience. And while some curators might fear that participatory models and crowd sourcing comes at the cost of the aesthetic experience, they in no way require a "watered-down” approach. Quite the opposite. The experience we offer visitors must correspond to the high standards with which we complete artistic research. I enjoyed Nina Simon’s advice to respect the power of what visitors have to offer. I agree with her suggestion to view visitors as scholars – people who engage in learning for the love of it – rather than novices. 

There are no hard and steadfast rules for how to organize a successful participatory exhibition. It is a topic we at the Carnegie have been grappling with increasing frequency and if the rich question and answer sessions after these panels are any indicator, so have our counterparts at other museums. But curators are uniquely poised at the center of this issue and I imagine our colleagues’ experimentations, shortcomings, and accomplishments will be the topic of AAMC discussions for years to come. 

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