Magazine article The American Prospect

The Embattled Curator

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Embattled Curator

Article excerpt

EARLIER THIS YEAR, THE MAGAzine Museum News featured a provocative cover illustration: Sir John Everett Millais's Pre-Raphaelite image of a drowned Ophelia floating face up, with flowers in one hand. The cover line for the story, about the changing role of curators at history museums, declared: "Reports of Our Death ... Have Been Greatly Exaggerated."

Maybe so. But if the traditional curator isn't dead, he or she is indisputably under assault. From outside the museum, big donors are playing a greater role in shaping exhibition content--a development that has infuriated curators at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Inside museums, as the Museum News article suggests, curators are being asked to cede control to exhibition teams staffed by designers and educators pushing "visitor friendly" shows.

But the most penetrating attack is one that some curators themselves are abetting. Instead of insisting on carte blanche to research the past and present it to the public, they are beginning to welcome to the table members of the communities whose stories are being told. The new buzzwords are "in-reach" and "shared authority." In the best cases, this can result in more authentic and revealing exhibitions; in the worst, blandness, incoherence, or self-congratulation.

The Museums and Community Initiative, a project of the American Association of Museums (AAM), is intended to accelerate this trend. A draft report scheduled to reach the AAM's board of directors in July calls for a radical rethinking of the traditional curator's role. The curator of the future will "facilitate the dialogue [with communities] ... in the context of what's knowable about the past," says Robert R. Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society and leader of the initiative.

REELING FROM CHARGES OF ELITISM, history museums have been seeking since the 1970s to broaden their collections and diversify their staffs and displays. New museums have sprung up to tell neglected stories--about African Americans and slavery, the destruction and survival of American Indians, the struggles of immigrants, and more. The Museums and Community Initiative, which has involved discussions with community leaders in six urban areas, is an effort to open museum doors wider still.

It's hard to argue against inclusiveness. But community can be a protean thing, a shifting aggregation of interests; trying to satisfy them all exacts costs. Kym Rice, an independent curator and assistant director of the museum studies program at George Washington University, hit on one problem this spring at the AAM's "Spirit of Community" annual meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. "Exhibitions by committee," she said, "frequently present a pastiche to the visitor that is so cobbled together as to completely lose point of view."

Rice and others argued for the importance of a strong curatorial voice--a feature that today's exhibitions often lack. It's hard to imagine, for example, that a show as passionately polemical as A More Perfect Union, the National Museum of American History's display on U.S. internment camps during World War II, would have been conceived in 2001--at least by the Smithsonian. Curated by Tom Crouch, the exhibition opened in 1987, a year before Congress awarded an apology and reparations to Japanese-American internees. Still on view, the show uses the Bill of Rights' own guarantees, as well as examples of racist wartime propaganda and the recollections of internees, to indict their treatment. Crouch's depiction of young Japanese Americans valiantly serving overseas in the U.S. armed forces while their families remained behind barbed wire back home retains the power to shock.

A few years later, Crouch, who'd moved to the National Air and Space Museum, became project director of the ill-fated Enola Gay exhibition. Pegged to the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, that show was supposed to memorialize and contextualize the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb and launched the nuclear age. …

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