Some thoughts on curating, access and sort-of philosophy

Creating an exhibition is an odd task, in my (very) limited experience.  The role of the curator or concept developer has the tendency to operate in a little bubble, focused on the collections and knowledge held and meeting museum-driven objectives.  But do our exhibitions always allow access as widely as we’d like? The Museums Association has a lovely outline of what access can mean to a museum. It unsurprisingly incorporates physical access, but it also includes philosophical access. Physical access makes sense – it’s something museums in New Zealand are trying their best to improve. Larger text and better lighting for visitors with impaired vision, ramps and differing heights of exhibits for those with mobility issues, and interpretation translated into different languages are a very few examples of how museums can incorporate improvements to physical access in their design. Access, however, can also be philosophical. Why are objects chosen for an exhibition? What was the thought process behind pulling together often disparate objects into a somewhat cohesive whole? What levels of interpretation are we providing, for different levels of education and interest? Who are our audience, and what do they want from us, rather than what do we, as museum professionals, assume they want?

These are, of course, enormous questions. Each could easily be their own research question,  thesis, extra long work meeting…but for myself, thinking about philosophical access in terms of curating exhibitions, getting inside the museum’s head can really help to de-mystify the seeming magic that creates a cohesive exhibition. Recently I attended a curator’s talk at the new Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, which really helped me to understand this idea of philosophical access. I’m a museum professional, but my understanding of art is sorely lacking, and how art gallery exhibitions are curated tends to be mysterious to me. Being able to view the gallery with the additional insights from the curator, showing how the works relate to each other and why they were chosen, brought the gallery to life for me. It made me think about my own practice, and how I could share the process of exhibition curation more widely, rather than just presenting a finished product. 

History exhibitions can sometimes give the impression of being ‘truthful’, but of course the process of curation is a process of choices, omission, best guesses and the occasional last-minute substitution (like the time I mistakenly tried to put a World War Two uniform in an exhibition about World War One and then had to rapidly find a uniform from the correct time period which was in a displayable condition. Long story short, the pants didn’t match. Whoops). For some visitors, providing a behind the scenes tour, blogs about process and decision making, and even interpretation within the exhibition space about how and why an exhibition is the way it is, could better open the museum and its processes up. It could result in some negative criticism, but perhaps more criticism will help us professionals provide access to our collection and exhibitions in a more philosophical rather than physical way. Combined with visitor research – actually asking our visitors what would help them to access both the museum’s physical and intellectual offerings - this sort of transparency could help to demystify the murky world of exhibition practice. 

Elspeth Hocking