Saturday, 21 February 2015




In this post I’d like to open a conversation on the subject of curatorial jurisdiction. Who holds greater influence over new curatorial trends - is it the (paying) visitors whose interests and needs are our mandate to fulfill? Or the ambitions and interests of knowledgeable curators whose insight and vision are lauded and respected? Two recent additions to the museum experience inspire this question: digital visitor curation apps, and social tagging projects for museum collections.

Publicly curated online collections such as the Rijksstudio, uCurate, and ArtLens have become increasingly popular in recent years. They offer a range of features, such as guided tours based upon physical proximity and individual interests, as well as the ability to curate personalized collections by ‘liking’ or tagging content. Some bloggers have shown great disdain for such programs and have voiced doubt that visitor curation can be as insightful or educated as that of professionals.

An application for digital collections and user-curation: uCurate by the Clark Institute.
uCurate by the Clark Institute. Image source.

However, does this perceived social desire to curate personal collections stem from the wish to increase accessibility and stamp ownership upon the collection, or also from a lack of interest in the curatorial themes chosen by professionals? As with all social phenomena, there are a whole slew of possible explanations. But is this explanation one that has heretofore gone unappreciated? If visitors feel the need to curate exhibitions based upon their own themes and categories, are blockbuster exhibitions accurately curated to the thematics visitors are told they should want to see rather than what they genuinely resonate with?

Social tagging projects such as the project at the Met or the aforementioned Rijksstudio reveal that publics identify and value very different connective qualities and categories amongst collections pieces than curators do. For example, users would tag content matter, story, use of colour, etc. instead of artist, date, region, or other meta-data valued by curators and collections managers. Firstly, incorporation of folksonomic tagging brilliantly adds to the intellectual accessibility of collections. But to go a step further,  do these folksonomies reveal a call for exhibitions that showcase something less restrictive than the traditional categories of artist or movement or culture? Are visitors tired of the traditional format and content of blockbuster exhibitions, where the showcased Masters and themes are already explored in the permanent galleries? These new topics bridge categories and carry much potential for education, as well as open opportunities for interesting curatorial collaborations for departments to conduct research outside of their respective fields. 

French art historian Michel Pastoureau's series of books explores the deep symbolism of colour in different time periods.
French art historian Michel Pastoureau's series of books explores the deep symbolism of colour in different time periods. Image source.

For example, take colour. How is it used, and what does it mean in different eras and to different socioeconomic groups? Such an exhibit on the colour blue displayed at the Beinecke Rare Book Library asked - and tried to answer - these very questions. “‘Blue’ demonstrates ways alternative approaches to thinking about archival research can expose dense systems of meaningful connection and material association overlooked by more traditional modes of inquiry.” It included objects, manuscripts, costumes, art, and even created a playlist of songs that featured the colour blue as a significant lyric.

Broad topics like animals and colours have popularly been explored in books, like green (for which there is a gushing and thorough summary here) or red have been, or as online exhibits such as this one at the Met. But are they ‘big name’ enough for blockbuster exhibitions? Rarely do we see huge exhibitions on these loose topics, with perhaps the notable exception of exhibits on myth, such as the popular show on Medieval Beasts at the Getty in 2007. Exhibitions tend to serve as forums for famous artists to travel around the world and meet new audiences (in droves), but it seems that visitors might be just as interested in learning about overarching themes and patterns as they are in singular artists or movements. These new thematic landscapes span cultures, and open new conversations about how we categorize history. 

I would personally be extremely interested to see an exhibition based upon concepts such as ‘the doorway or threshold’, ‘mountain sanctuaries’, or perhaps ‘marriage ceremonies’. These of course are all very broad categorizations, but with careful curation they have the potential to highlight either the shared values or unique nuances of the world’s cultures. I would love to explore what these concepts meant in different times and places, as well as all of their many beautiful artistic manifestations found throughout history. 

What would an exhibit on ‘rabbits’ look like? All of these pieces would be tagged by content as ‘rabbit’, yet they all have very different meanings, contexts, and interpretations.
What would an exhibit on ‘rabbits’ look like? All of these pieces would be tagged by content as ‘rabbit’, yet they all have unique (hidden) meanings, contexts, and interpretations, and speak to very different phenomena within their societies. Sources, clockwise from top left: 1. 2. 3. 4.

I for one will be keeping my eyes peeled and my date book at the ready for such exhibitions in the future. What about you? What unconventional exhibition themes would you be interested in seeing? Do you agree that folksonomies reveal interest in themes beyond beyond those to which we are accustomed? If folksonomies and social tagging become more widely used in collections management, do you see exhibition planning or the role of the curator changing to meet the changing interests of the public?


  1. Hi. You might find this paper useful for your thinking. Suse

    1. Hi Susan, I just started reading this article upon your recommendation, and realized it was one of the works we read in our New Media class last October. It actually first sparked my interest in the possibilities and issues around museum tagging! So I must thank you for inspiring a part of this post.

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