Need to know
Next to me, on my desk, is a pile of about 50 books. Some of them I bought. Some I was given by friends. Some were sent by people I didn’t even know, who thought I might be interested in their work. Individually, the books are interesting. Together, though, they have become downright oppressive.
Desks, in this respect, are a lot like closets. And kitchen cupboards. And two-car garages. All seem to naturally fill up with stuff, stuff we kinda sorta want, enough not to ditch it, anyway. My father is a good example. He subscribes to The Economist magazine, and at some point, long ago, decided he would never throw away an issue until he’d read it cover to cover. Last year, he brightly announced that he’d finally reached the September 2001 edition. He was fascinated, from this distance, to see the debates over the World Trade Center attacks and their implications. Just wait till you get to 2020, I said.
In his novel Homer and Langley (2009), E L Doctorow offers a more extreme example: a fictionalised account of the real-life Collyer brothers, whose hoarding instincts were so strong that they ended up living in a narrow warren of passages, squeezing through towering, ramshackle stockpiles of their own belongings, ‘a labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions and many dead ends’. Doctorow adds drama and poignancy to the tale by telling it from the perspective of Homer, the elder brother, who is blind, though the house becomes so crowded that illuminating it is impossible anyway. Homer’s brother Langley also navigates it in near-darkness. Eventually, the brothers are grimly undone by their own packrat ways. And this part of the story, sadly, is true: in 1947, Langley was crushed by a fall of domestic detritus. Homer, unable or unwilling to escape, starved to death.
Most of us should be able to sympathise with the Collyers, because we dislike throwing out things at least a little. Yet the idea that our possessions might turn the tables and possess us holds a certain fascinating horror. Our complex relationship with our things is behind the runaway popularity of Marie Kondo, the diminutive Jedi of decluttering, who has conquered the world with her ‘six rules of tidying’ – most memorably, the injunction to ask of every single thing in your environment: ‘Does it spark joy?’ If not, she counsels, out it goes.
Kondo gives good advice. But we should go further. Her injunctions aren’t much use in helping me figure out how to reduce my book pile, for instance. I do read for joy, sometimes, and occasionally even find it. But I have books for many other reasons, too: for reference, to learn things, to transform my understanding and see the world a bit differently. Kondo’s combination of empathy and minimalism makes for good television. But it won’t get you to the kind of lived-in, peculiarly personalised space that, for most people, defines the ideal of home.
Past the tidying stage, a more capacious process awaits: curating. Before we go any further, let’s admit that overuse has worn the word a bit thin. Even before the rise of social media – which allows a user to carefully curate an avatar self, one post at a time – it was already suffering mission creep. Wedding receptions, department store windows, dinner parties, your weekend away: no longer are these things planned or arranged. They are ‘curated’. A quick incidence search of the term in Google Books shows an astonishing rise, from all-but-zero in 1960 through a slight rise to 1980, and then up a Matterhorn-steep climb to the present day. There is a book out there offering a ‘curated’ tour of America’s RV parks. Another photography book is ambitiously titled Reality, Curated (2021). A website called Curated offers advice on buying just about anything, which will be offered by a 100 per cent human expert (‘or should we say, your new friend’).
Unsurprisingly, museum curators – among whom I number myself – can be irritated by all this. It sometimes feels like a land grab of our professional territory. The meaning of real curatorial work is diluted, while the project of organising everyday things is made pretentious. But what if we accept the overuse of the word as evidence that people actually want to curate? What if we apply museum procedures and principles – the things that curators actually do for a living – to our everyday activities and things? It’s an interesting idea.
What to do
The word curate derives from the Latin curare, ‘to care for’. As anyone who has ever had a child or a pet knows, caring for something is a two-way street, and it’s perfectly OK if most of the traffic is going outbound. The curator’s creed is: ask not what your stuff can do for you, but what you can do for your stuff.
Buy with confidence
In one important respect, this attitude doesn’t translate well to normal life. When a curator writes a ‘case for acquisition’ (as such internal documents are usually called), which are typically reviewed by a broader collections committee, they are singling out an object from the vast number of other things in the world. To acquire something for a museum collection is to designate it as worthy of permanent preservation. The curator is saying to the museum and its visitors and the world: this object is important, and you should think so too.
To apply this attitude to personal possessions would be rather arrogant – think of how awful it can be when parents try to impose their possessions on their own children. (And I’d like to thank my dad for recycling his Economists when he’s done with them.) In some ways, however, a genuine museum curatorial process is a great model to bear in mind.
For starters, a collection is always built in light of a stated mission. Curators don’t ask simply: is this thing great? They ask: is it great for my institution, and my department? This means having a deep understanding of the long-term historical trajectory not just of the object, but of the place where it will reside.
Many factors can come into play when making this determination. Is a prospective acquisition redundant with other objects already in the museum’s holdings? Or, conversely, does it fill a conspicuous hole in the collection? What is the full story of the object, its authorship, medium and history? Is it what it purports to be, and is it in good condition? A good case for acquisition goes into all these questions in depth, and if it’s really well done, might even become a key research tool for future curators.
It would be ridiculous to sit down in the department store to write up all the pros and cons of buying a jacket for the fall season. Still, curatorial questions are the right ones to be asking. Something can be wonderful – epaulettes! – without being right for everyone. Issues of redundancy, complementarity and authenticity must be taken into account. Curatorial habits of mind can prevent impulse-buying, and the regret that follows.
Let’s be honest, though. Even the most cogently conceived and consistently applied collections policy is no match for the law of closets. Storage is an unavoidable part of life. It’s very unusual for a museum to have more than about 10 per cent of its holdings on view at any given time. Storage, however, doesn’t necessarily mean dead space. Curators work closely with registrars to ensure that collections remain active, through gallery rotations and touring exhibitions, and, most importantly in recent years, through digital access.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where I used to work, has more than 1.2 million objects in its searchable database (about half the total collection), far more than could possibly be put on display. Museums are also increasingly committing to ‘open storage’ facilities that can be visited by specialists and the general public, often with opportunities for scheduled object handling. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has even allowed musicians to play the instruments in their collection, under careful supervision. Through such measures, museums are catching up to their acquisitive former selves, fulfilling expectations about public access that had long been neglected.
There’s a principle at work here that can be applied beyond museums: think of storage as a dynamic part of life. This isn’t so much about organising things into neat conceptual categories, which just traps them in an uninvolving system, external to the rhythms of daily life. Rather, thinking like a curator means remaining aware of things when they aren’t in use. Keep them present in mind.
My wife, who is an artist, recently reorganised our books by the colour of their spines. It looks nice, and though I initially thought I’d never find a book again, I soon realised that I do have a strong mental picture of each one, and it was this way of arranging that activated this awareness. I now find that I can usually put my hands on a certain volume quickly. It’s also fun to occasionally peruse the shelves and be reminded of what’s where, which I might do less if I thought I already knew. The same idea goes for anything else – dishes, tools, vinyl albums. Do whatever you can to keep them present to your awareness and, ideally, keep them moving. Our bodies need circulation, both mental and physical. So do our living spaces. They really can be alive, if we let them.
Show, don’t tell
So far, I’ve been talking mainly about the relationship between curators and collections. But a museum wouldn’t be a museum at all without exhibitions. Curators probably don’t spend as much time on this part of their work as they would like, but making exhibitions is a big part of the job, and perhaps the most creative.
Here too, there are lessons to be learned. Exhibitions are where the curator’s expertise meets the general public. It’s tricky to get that right. I always tell my students that when they start working on a show, before doing any research at all, they should write down everything they know about the subject on a piece of paper, and stick it in a drawer. Occasionally, perhaps when writing a catalogue entry or a press release, pull those notes out. It’s helpful to remember what it was like not to know much about a topic, which is of course where the audience is mostly coming from.
‘Show, don’t tell’ remains sound advice, and in curating we see the direct demonstration of that principle. Good curating involves communicating complex thoughts with maximum efficiency, primarily through visual means. (Another good rule of thumb: exhibitions should work well even for people who don’t, or can’t, read the labels.) When it comes to getting a point across, you just can’t beat a vivid juxtaposition of two or more perfectly chosen examples. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the right pictures in combination can feel like a whole book. But that’s not always the best thing to do. As in any artistic composition, negative space is crucial. To make a sculpture look its best, sometimes it should just be put all by itself in the middle of a room. Sometimes it will do better over in the corner, like a presiding spirit.
The secret of exhibition-making, then, is to understand what each object, image or idea really needs. It’s a principle that applies as much to putting together a living room or a PowerPoint presentation as a gallery. Not every aspect of life can be treated this way, of course – it would be a very bad idea to apply curatorial selective emphasis to your tax return. But in so many other areas of communication – writing an email, telling a story, maybe even raising a child – it’s a great rule of thumb. Gather all the information you have time for, then make a decisive choice that rings true. And don’t overexplain.
Key points – How to curate (just about) anything
- What you own says a lot about you, in ways you might not even be aware of. And the message you intend can get blurry. Rather than just minimising belongings as a means to clarity, it’s better to think of objects as opportunities for personal expression and potential communication.
- All the storage compartments in our lives, both physical and mental, can be activated. Finding ways to keep ideas and objects in circulation makes for a richer life, with more to offer others.
- Good curators don’t try to go it alone. They combine their expertise with that of conservators, designers, fundraisers and educators to make their museums sing.
- Objects might be inanimate. But give them what they want, and they’ll return that generosity in full.
Face up to change
Maybe the most fraught aspect of curatorial work is deaccessioning – a polite word for getting rid of things in the collection. It has always been important for museums to undertake this process from time to time because it frees up space and reduces cost. Up until recently, though, it was one of the sleepier aspects of curatorial work, often postponed due to other, more urgent matters. Suddenly, however, deaccessioning has garnered attention and catalysed important debate. To understand why, it’s important to remember that most art museum collections are mostly made up of work by white men. This lack of diversity has left many institutions, and their curators, feeling like they either have to apologise for their collections or somehow justify their intrinsic unfairnesses, neither of which seems like a great long-term plan.
What to do? Along with exhibitions and programming, there is also another option: sell some art by dead, white, male artists and put the proceeds toward new acquisitions reflecting the true diversity of art, past and present. This ‘progressive deaccessioning’ strategy has proved controversial, with critics accusing museums of jettisoning important works into the rough-and-tumble of the market, in the name of misguided identity politics. Others, myself included, have argued that making major strides toward diversity now – not in 50 or 100 years – is both ethically right and essential for the sector’s ongoing relevance.
In curators we trust
Whatever one makes of this debate, the furore over deaccessioning shows that thinking like a curator goes beyond the apparently sedate matters of acquisition, storage and display. Insofar as they are bound up with narratives of quality and importance, museums are also invariably caught up in questions of politics. One thing to bear in mind, here, is that museums are among the most trusted of all public organisations – up there with the local library. This makes them all but unique, for seemingly every other type of institution – the government and the media especially, but also the legal, scientific and medical professions – has seen faith in their authority plummet in recent decades. Why are museums exempted from that trend? OK, maybe it’s because people don’t believe there is much at stake. Whether a painting is really by Rembrandt or not doesn’t matter like a monthly healthcare bill. Even so, trust is trust, and it’s one of the most valuable things a person can be given, whatever their walk of life.
Here the lessons aren’t so clear. But the questions are still important ones. When someone – anyone, really, but especially the public at large – gives an institution its trust, what responsibilities ensue? How can a museum maintain the trust of its public, which can (as in the deaccessioning debate) bring conflicting demands to its doorstep? And how can the people who work within the institution – curators among them – distinguish between their own personal sense of what’s right and organisational policy, and keep the two in some kind of balance?
These are difficult problems, to be sure, and over the past year or so, museums have had to contend with them as never before. If they have a natural advantage over other types of organisation, though, it’s in the solidity of the objects under their care. A museum is defined by things and the people who care for them. There’s a sense of duty, here, as profound as anything you will encounter in a church or in the military. This prompts the thought that an equivalent concrete foundation is something to seek out in the regular flow of life. And it might already be all around you. Objects can sometimes be inconvenient. They pile up, and get in the way. Approach them with respect and rigour, though, and they might just offer the rudder that’s needed in a turbulent current.
Links & books
My book Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects (2018) starts with the story of my two beloved childhood teddy bears to discuss what I call material experience, or how we interact with things in the world.
I also wrote the article ‘In Defence of Progressive Deaccessioning’ (2020) for Apollo magazine, which makes the case for the dynamic’s contribution to diversity in the North American museum sector.
Sarah Archer’s article ‘Tidying Up With Marie Kondo Isn’t Really a Makeover Show’ (2019) for The Atlantic magazine argues that the Netflix series is really about cultivating empathy, rather than materialism.
Also in The Atlantic, Adam Hochschild’s article ‘The Fight to Decolonize the Museum’ (2020) discusses the struggle to update the Royal Museum for Central Africa, outside Brussels.
Finally, the book Grasping the World (2004) edited by Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago offers a collections of critical, ethical and historical essays on the European idea of the museum.