Back in late October (Friday 16), Dr Catriona Mcara and I curated a one day pop-up exhibition at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), University of Edinburgh as part of the Luminate Festival of Creative Ageing. The event, ‘Festival in a Box: a pop-up exhibition of stories’ followed directly from our 2014 event Boxes of Delight: surrealism at 90.
Drawing on Dr Mcara’s curatorial and exhibition making practice at the Leeds College of Art as well as my ‘Festival in a Box’ project, the exhibition aimed to present materials gathered by the travelling Festival in a Box archives over the past 12-months. We hoped also that the exhibition and workshop would allow people to explore how creative approaches to storytelling, curation and artistic practice are helping people to preserve memories and live happier lives.
In the event, this one day exhibition also raised some important questions about what it means to be a curator. Some of these questions are explored below.
Making a pop-up exhibition
On arrival, the immediate task was to transform a cosy, but decidedly ‘seminar like’ room into an exhibition space. We were determined that visitors to the event should feel like they were genuinely attending an exhibition, ‘pop-up’ or not, and that that we wanted the space to be a total environment in which our year-long collaboration could be engaged with and walked through.
Carefully, we took down some paintings and throws from the walls and put up drawings and research ephemera in their place. We set up a series of display boards, and arranged artefacts from the two years’ worth of research that has gone into the project. Though far from the ‘white cube’, the room began to look more and more like an exhibition space.
After a short orientating presentation which helped to explain the content of the exhibition, we moved onto the workshop section of the event. We wanted to offer our attendees (including one person with dementia and her carer) an opportunity to add to the Festival in a Box ‘archives’ and to add material to the exhibition itself.
In advance of the session we had invited people to bring along memory objects to be photographed for the session. Using a small photo-station that we had set up, I took both SLR and polaroid photographs of these memory objects.
The polaroids were added to the exhibition boards with other materials and allowed to develop over the course of the session
While the photographs developed, we invited people to tell the stories behind their objects, and to write these on a number of forms had been developed for the project. People shared stories of memory objects including a youthful photograph taken of one of our participants on the day of her qualification as a nurse, a childhood toy dog, and even a red plastic clown’s nose.
Sharing stories helped to bring the group together, and by the end of session a significant amount of new material had been developed to add to the box.
Everyone an artist, everyone a curator?
When preparing for this event I read about and was inspired by the story of uber-curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist organising his first exhibition in his kitchen, and curating another one from a suitcase in a hotel room. Reviewing Obrist’s recent work Ways of Curating in the London Review of Books the art historian Hal Foster has argued that:
The Surrealists liked to proclaim that everyone who dreams is a poet, and Joseph Beuys that everyone who creates is an artist. So much for the utopian days of aesthetic egalitarianism; maybe the best we can say today is that everyone who compiles is a curator (Foster, 2015)
Foster means this in a derogatory sense. In an age both of narcissistic information overload and of managerial hyper-professionalisation, we ‘curate’, he suggests, on a very shallow level. In drawing this three-way parallel, however: between the emancipatory promise of surrealism, the ‘everyone an artist’ demystifications of the 1960s, and the contemporary ‘curatorial turn’, Foster might inadvertently suggest a liberatory way of looking at curatorial practice itself
Echoing Foster, but with a very different guiding sentiment, interesting work along these lines is being done in this field by researchers engaged on the AHRC-funded Family Archives Project. In a recent blog Dr Vicky Crewe has argued that the line between professional and ‘amateur’ curation should be problematised, and that those creating (for example) family photograph albums and scrap books should be taken seriously as curators. She suggests that:
members of the public are rarely asked how and why they keep and look after items relating to their personal family archives. What are we missing if we don’t ask these ‘citizen curators’ about their own archival practices and values?’ (Crewe, 2015)
I hope that our pop-up exhibition allowed participants to leave feeling that they had been respected as ‘citizen curators’ of their own stories, memories, and memory objects. We can only aim to create more times and spaces in which this is so.
Crewe, Vicky. ‘Who or What Is a Curator? | The Family Archive Project’. Accessed 23 December 2015. http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/familyarchive/2015/03/17/who-or-what-is-a-curator/.
Foster, Hal. ‘Exhibitionists’. London Review of Books, 4 June 2015.
Obrist, Hans Ulrich. Ways of Curating. Penguin, 2015.